COLUMBIA — Ninh Pham Skypes with her parents only on Saturdays. Her parents, who live near Hanoi, Vietnam, wanted to talk to her several times a week after recently learning how to Skype.
But Pham, who came to Columbia four months ago, decided to put a limit on the calls and live a more independent life as a graduate student in journalism at MU.
She said that though she misses her family, she has found comfort in her studies and the Vietnamese community at MU. The separation has been harder for her parents.
"It’s new to them having someone live far away," she said.
The supportive community Pham has found is anchored in MU's Vietnam Institute, which was formally created in 2008. The institute is the outgrowth of the Vietnam Initiatives Group, which was started on campus in 2005 by Joseph Hobbs, Jerry Nelson, Sang Kim and Henry Nguyen.
In 2005, there were four students from Vietnam at MU, said Hobbs, chairman of the Department of Geography. As of fall 2011, there were 68, making the Vietnamese community the fourth-largest international group at MU, according to the Division of Enrollment Management.
As the community has grown, strong relationships and organizations have developed to help Vietnamese students adjust to life in America and succeed at MU.
How the institute works
Hobbs and two graduate research assistant students make up the core of the Vietnam Institute and are in charge of communicating with students in Vietnam and encouraging them to attend MU.
Hobbs said the idea for creating the institute came about after he visited Vietnam in 2004 and found a large general interest in sending Vietnamese students to school in America. Vietnamese officials have asked for help in reforming their educational system — a Soviet system based on rote memorization — to be more like the American system, which emphasizes problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, he said.
“When I went in 2004, I was completely dumbfounded in a very positive way by the openness of Vietnamese colleagues I met, toward working with me, working with Americans, just collaborating in general,” Hobbs said. “There was a very friendly, open, ‘let’s work together and do something’ attitude.”
As the institute has grown, Hobbs and the graduate students have continued to help prospective Vietnamese graduate and undergraduate students apply to and enroll at MU. The recruiting process has become a bit easier, however, because of the increased word-of-mouth advertising.
"Anymore, they (the students who come to MU from Vietnam) are doing a lot of the recruiting themselves," Hobbs said.
Held together by community
The institute and the Vietnamese community at MU continue to help students from Vietnam after they arrive in the U.S.
The two institute graduate students and members of the MU Vietnamese Student Association volunteer to meet students at the airport and help them settle into Columbia with basics such as finding an apartment and shopping for groceries, said Hoa Hoang, former VSA president and a doctoral student in agricultural economics.
The association puts on events throughout the year such as potlucks and celebrations for the lunar new year and International Day to make new students feel comfortable, Hoang said.
When Pham first came to the U.S., she attended the new year celebration with VSA members. For her, being with people from her native country made the separation seem less drastic.
“You get the feeling like home,” Pham said.
*One of the institute's graduate students, Ngan Le, 25, said most students are nervous when they arrive from Vietnam. The goal of the Vietnamese community at MU is to help ease these nerves, she said.
"They feel nervous and especially when they come at the airport," Le said. "But most students here, when they meet us in the airport and when we have them settle down, they feel more confidence with life here and very (much) enjoy the life in MU."
Hoang said she also encourages students to make friends outside the Vietnamese community.
"It’s good if you have Vietnamese friends around, but it’s still better if you be more proactive and you keep the curiosity to understand more about American people and communities," she said.
Challenges that come with the program
Even with the strong support of the community, students from Vietnam said there are several challenges that are a natural part of going to college in another country.
The first is the language, Le said.
"The first time I came here, I feel difficult to catch up with the idea people talk to me, especially in the seminar class, the discussion class," Le said. "But the professor in my class is very supporting. He spend time to talk with me before class. So I overcome it easily and after one semester I feel confidence in speaking with Americans."
Pham, Le, Hoang and Anh Nguyen, a junior majoring in economics and mathematics, all said adjusting to the differences in academic systems has been a challenge.
"In Vietnam, we just listen and take the information," Le said. "So I have to learn (how to adjust to the different teaching styles)."
Hoang said she enjoys the American system because she hopes to learn skills that can help her be successful in both the U.S. and Vietnam. She said she is interested in the leadership lessons she is getting in the U.S. as well as participating in social activities.
A third potential challenge is the cost of a college education in America.
Hobbs said Vietnam is a poor country relative to both the U.S. and developing countries. He said an average salary in Vietnam for a professor is $125 a month.
The Vietnamese government pays for some students to come to school in America, but others have to pay their own tuition.
Nguyen’s family is paying for her college costs without support from the Vietnamese government. She attended two colleges in California before coming to MU this past August because the tuition rates in California were too high for her family to afford.
At MU, Nguyen has to work to afford her tuition.
"The inflation in Vietnam is going up," Nguyen said, "so it’s kind of hard to my family to support me, so I’m working as a tutor so I can get paid and support partly for myself."
Hobbs said there are also some struggles that come along with running the institute including time and funding. He has paid for some expenses, including trips to Vietnam to recruit students, out of his own pocket. The only funding for the institute is to pay the two graduate students, he said.
"Higher administration has been supportive in terms of 'hey, you're doing really good work over there,'" Hobbs said. "But I'd like to see them put some financial resources into place. That would be such a big help."
He enjoys the work and hopes it can continue.
"I am really fond of the country and of these young people that represent what Vietnam is all about and where it’s going," he said. "I really have a stake in Vietnam’s future. I don’t know why that is, except that I care about it and it’s tremendously rewarding to see these students come over and have a good experience here at MU."