West Meets East
Connecting Communities through Friendship Families
By Cindy Benson
In August 2008, Duong Ngoc Thuy Zui Nguyen '11 boarded a 30-hour flight in Hanoi, Vietnam, to attend Colby-Sawyer College. Nguyen, then 19, had attended a local university for a year to study international trade and decided she would get a better education in the United States. Her mother had studied nursing in the Czech Republic and encouraged her daughters, Duong and her younger sister, Anh, who is also a student at Colby-Sawyer, to study abroad and see the outside world.
While Nguyen was searching for a college, a friend who had studied in New England sent photos of the fall foliage, which piqued Nguyen's interest. She researched her options and found Colby-Sawyer, which not only looked beautiful but was ranked among the top regional colleges in New England and offered the generous financial aid Nguyen needed.
Once accepted, Nguyen prepared for the experience of a lifetime. I was both nervous and excited, she says. This was my first time away from my parents.
The idea of studying away during college was something Nguyen had been mentally prepared for since sixth grade, when she was accepted into one of Hanoi's top schools, one of only 30 students in her grade. She specialized in English and took additional lessons after school at an English language center.
I knew from the time I was young I wanted to study abroad, Nguyen says. Other relatives and friends had done it, and it is becoming more common in Vietnam.
Home Away from Home
Zui Nguyen is part of a fast-growing population of international students at Colby- Sawyer that has increased from five in 2008 to more than 100 projected for fall 2011. Twenty nations, ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, are now represented by students on campus, a result of the college's recent efforts to expand its international recruitment and to globalize its student population.
Every international student is matched with a local Friendship Family, a program administered through International Student Services at Colby-Sawyer that provides more support and connections for these students. Nguyen was matched with Marsha Johnson '59 and her husband Bruce as her family away from home, and they began corresponding over the summer before she arrived at Colby-Sawyer. Marsha Johnson, an active alumna who lives in New London, first introduced the idea of Friendship Families to the college; she and her husband had years of experience in hosting international students and had traveled extensively. They were excited to welcome another student into their lives.
When Nguyen arrived in New London by coach, she stayed with Marsha and Bruce for a few days before moving onto campus for Student Orientation. After relaxing in the Johnsons' home on a lake and exploring the White Mountains with them, Nguyen felt comfortable with her Friendship Family and was certain that she had chosen the perfect part of the country in which to attend college.
While the warm welcome continued, the cool weather set in right away that fall. The summer clothes I had packed were not useful here. It was cold already! Nguyen recalls. That was the year an ice storm forced the college to close a week early for winter break. The following year, a second ice storm caused a power outage and another school closing. Nothing in Vietnam, where the temperature stays above 40 degrees, had prepared Nguyen for snow and ice, but she was game for almost anything and even learned to ski at Mt. Sunapee.
She took ski lessons and Bruce spent four days helping her along, giving her a few pointers. She wanted to know why she had to learn to turn! relates Marsha, laughing.
During Nguyen's first week in the United States, Marsha and Bruce dubbed her Zui since her Vietnamese name begins with the zoo sound, but was difficult to pronounce. Nguyen seemed happy to take on a nickname and even her own parents call her Zui now. Marsha and Bruce have taken Zui to the Barn Playhouse, the Northern Stage to see Les Miserables, and to several performances at Dartmouth College of the Gospel Choir and Dartmouth Idol.
Our children are grown, so we've enjoyed sharing and enriching Zui's life here, Marsha explains. Whenever we've asked her to do anything, she always says yes. She enjoys people and likes to do almost anything.
American Education Equals Success
A strong student, Nguyen was accepted into the Wesson Honors Program at Colby- Sawyer and majored in Business Administration, completing her studies in just over three years. Business Administration is a popular major among international students since it makes it easier to get a job anywhere, especially if we want to go home (to work), she explains.
More than half of Colby-Sawyer's international students major in business and most hope to put their skills to work in their home country. To obtain a visa to study in the United States, international students must prove they have strong ties to their home country and plan to return. They do, however, have the option of applying to the U.S. Immigration Service for an extra year of employment related to their major after graduation.
If international students decide to go on to graduate or doctoral programs, they can apply for another year of employment between each level of schooling. At that point, if they hope to stay in the United States, they would have to find an employer willing to sponsor them for a work visa. As a result, these students must plan far in advance and have very specific goals when they come to this country. It's a big com mitment and a sacrifice for their families, but they value an American education and believe it is the key to success.
Nguyen hopes that someday she'll be able to start an organization to help other Vietnamese students study abroad. When we go abroad we learn about the ways that people do things differently. It's important for people to learn about diverse ways of thinking and being. Vietnam is a monoculture and people are not exposed to differences that much, she says.
In the last two decades, it has become more common for Vietnamese students to seek a college education in the United States or Europe. The education system in my country is out of date, says Nguyen.
Our curriculum emphasizes theory rather than practice. Students are required to take all classes designed by the school, some of which are irrelevant, such as Marxism and Leninism. We do not get to choose what to study. The U.S. has the liberal arts model that allows us to follow our dream. Here I was able to take courses like studio art, earth science, and classes such as Exploring Nature, Health and Wellness, along with courses in my major. I also took writing. I love creative writing; that was one of my favorite courses.
Nguyen was active outside the classroom as well and joined the Dance Club and the CSC Singers. She tried swimming lessons and participated in Cross Cultural Club. A major adjustment I made to adapt to life here was learning to participate in group activities. At home we don't hang out with such big groups, everything is more individualized, Nguyen says. Life here is very different. I come from a pretty busy city where we do not get to see nature a lot. It is cool to have my nature class go outside of the classroom to learn about the trees and animals of this area. We identified tracks of mice, chipmunks, deer and turkey. I've seen a lot of birds, including the loons on Pleasant Lake.
That Nguyen and her sister studied abroad is not unusual for students of their generation, but the fact that their mother studied abroad is.
Women of my generation, particularly in big cities, have been more active in almost every aspect of life in comparison with our parents' generation. We have equal opportunity to Nguyen says. A lot of our friends also come to the U.S. for their higher education; some go home after they finish school, some stay.
In fact, she says, many Vietnamese who study abroad come from her high school in Hanoi. During a visit to the Johnsons' daughter's home in Andover, Mass., Nguyen was introduced to a Vietnamese teacher at Phillips Andover Academy. She soon discovered that this man's father had been her former principal, his mother was her former teacher, and his younger brother had been her classmate in her Hanoi high school .
Extending the Family
Marsha Johnson's granddaughter, Katy, decided to study in Vietnam last year after graduating from high school in Massachusetts. She had met Nguyen at Johnson family gatherings and found out that she would be home for a few days more when Katy first arrived in Hanoi. Katy was able to connect with Nguyen's family and Nguyen's mother extended a hand of friendship to her many more times throughout the year, inviting her to a meal and hosting her for the weekend.
In February the Johnsons traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia to visit Katy and see the sights. They were welcomed into the Nguyens' home and spent an evening visiting and talking with her parents. Katy translated as best she could as they sat around a low coffee table, eating delicious spring rolls, traditional noodle soup, shrimp and vegetables. For dessert, Nguyen's mother presented a beautiful platter of bananas and watermelon. The Johnsons kept their coats on during the chilly visit because most homes there have no central heating and Zui's mom likes to keep the doors and windows open to enjoy the fresh air.
What Nguyen misses most about home are family gatherings like the one the Johnsons enjoyed, and the busy city streets where she and her friends can go window shopping and buy food from the many street vendors. Small tables with low plastic chairs provide makeshift sidewalk cafes where Nguyen and her friends hang out and eat noodle soup.
It's kind of like some of the restaurants in Hanover that have tables outdoors on the sidewalk, but not as nice, she says, laughing.
Reflecting on what she admires most about American culture and people, Nguyen says without hesitation, The people here are very kind-hearted. They open their door to any student who needs help. For instance, this summer I wasn't sure what my plans were, and one of the staff members at the college invited me to live with her family.
It seems that families in the New London area are proving wrong all the stereotypes about stand-offish New Englanders as they reach out with hospitality and generosity to students so far from home.
Zui is a very self-reliant person, says Marsha. She's strong and keeps complaints to herself. These kids have got to have a lot of inner strength just to be here. Those fortunate enough to befriend these international students are thankful they have made the effort and sacrificed so much to come to Colby-Sawyer College. Our community benefits in countless ways from this dynamic exchange of cultures.
Cindy Benson is the advisor for International Student Services at Colby-Sawyer College.