Inside Loyola’s Vietnam Center
Alise Leal is a senior at Loyola University Chicago, but she is one of 29 students to have studied at the Loyola Vietnam Center. The year-old center is the newest addition to Loyola’s diverse and well-renowned study abroad programs, which also include centers in Rome and Beijing.
Many students choose to study abroad to discover their own life-changing experiences, but through Loyola’s Vietnam Center Leal found herself and her fellow Loyola students changing the lives of others.
Leal knew little about the program before attending, but she knew she was in a very different place when she found herself living with Vietnamese students who didn’t know the meaning of the word “unique” and the concept of individuality was almost nonexistent. Leal originally chose The Vietnam Center when she was planning her senior year classes and realized her schedule perfectly coincided with the program.
Veronica Policht, also a Loyola student, attended the program at the same time as Leal. She sought out The Vietnam Center because she was looking to “experience a place completely different than anything she’d ever experienced before.”
Leal spent a semester before her time at The Vietnam Center studying at The Rome Center, however, she says the two programs are almost impossible to compare. This is not only because the two countries are so incredibly different, but also because the Vietnam program is so young, opening in the spring of 2010, while The Rome Center has been around since 1962 and is recognized as “the oldest continual U.S. university in Italy” with “more than 400 students attending the program a year,” according to The Rome Center website.
While the two programs are very different, their campuses are both situated in affluent areas of their respective cities. The Vietnam Center is located in District One of Ho Chi Minh city, a more prosperous downtown area. Leal and the nine other Loyola students in the program lived in a guesthouse very close to the University of Science and Humanities, where Loyola students take classes.
One of the benefits Leal found about the housing is that she was able to live with Vietnamese students. Leal says she was extremely grateful for her living situation because the Vietnamese students were able to help her get situated and integrate into the culture.
Living with Vietnamese students was one of the greatest and most challenging parts of Leal’s experience, she said, partly due to the major culture differences. Vietnam’s culture is based on a hierarchal, family and community-oriented structure. For example, a person’s “verbiage changes when speaking to others, depending on one’s age.” Often men are seen as the breadwinners in the family and there is less focus on education for women, in general. One cultural aspect Leal admired was that Vietnamese people regard the family very highly and “will support their family no matter what it takes.”
One of the major cultural differences Leal felt is the concept of individuality. She saw Vietnamese people as more community- and family-oriented, as opposed to individually driven. She found it very difficult to explain the meaning and concepts of “opinion” and “individuality.” In fact, her roommates didn’t use phrases such as “I think” and wouldn’t disagree or voice their opinion on anything, whether it be a decision on where to eat or what they thought on a topic.
Through their close living quarters she and her Vietnamese roommates were able to experience personal and emotional “breakthrough moments,” being able to communicate cross-culturally. Leal felt her and her fellow Loyola’s individualistic attitudes “rubbed off” on these students and changed their lives. For example, one of her fellow roommates decided to pursue her true passion to become a singer. Leal also felt similar breakthrough moments for herself with these students, as their family-oriented mentality had a great impact on shaping her values.
Her roommates couldn’t believe her when she said, “she no longer kept in touch with her aunt.” The importance of family in her roommates’ lives, made her re-evaluate her own “essentials in life” and what is truly important.
While Policht enjoyed her living situation she would have liked to have had the option to live with a Vietnamese family to practice the language more, but she adds that the living arrangements were good considering the program is so new.
While the program was small when Leal attended, she felt the bond between the students took a while to grow. Most of the students came from different backgrounds and majors; however, the bond became so strong at the end of the program that a “Vietnam community” developed with program alumni. She and other alumni still communicate with students studying at the center, becoming a “shoulder for current students.”
She also still keeps in contact with her former Vietnamese roommates. The experience Leal had makes her feel a certain bond with other Vietnam Center students that she says “no one else can understand, as cliché as that may sound.” This is something she finds very special and unique to the program.
Leal’s favorite part of the program was her internship position with Saigon Children’s Charity, an organization “committed to assisting in the elimination of poverty in Vietnam.” As a fundraising intern, Leal was able to learn a lot through marketing, networking and doing social media for the nonprofit. She developed personal relationships with her co-workers and loved her internship, which Loyola helped her to find.
Leal and Policht both enjoyed traveling during their time at the center. The side trips to Cambodia, Hanoi, and Dalat that Policht took through the program allowed her to get a full picture of the country, which she sees as very important for a true experience. She also appreciated experiencing the contrast between the urban campus and more rural environments during the trips. Leal adds that the traveling allowed the group to bond.
As for the Vietnamese people themselves, Leal had nothing but positive things to say about them, describing them as “very wonderful people, who are the hardest workers with the most forgiving and open hearts.” She says if you have an interest in their culture and engaging with them they will be the “most hospitable, sweet and grateful to you.”
If you are looking for cultural immersion, Leal says, “there is no way not to be immersed” through this program. She recommends this program to students looking for adventure, immersion and a challenge and emphasizes that “you will get out of it what you put into it.”
While every student’s experience is different, there is no doubt that others will change your life and maybe you can even change theirs through The Vietnam Center.
- written by lroffle on April 19th, 2012
- posted in Writing for the Web