An Interview with Volunteer Teacher Elliot Waldman in Vietnam

David McMurray



Outreach interviews Elliot Waldman,who teaches as a volunteer at Hong Duc University in Vietnam. The Volunteers in Asia (VIA) organization dispatched him to Thanh Hoa to teach English, learn about the local culture, and provide support to local non-profit organizations. The VIA program assists Asian students in learning about American culture, public service, and healthcare. Using classroom technologies available in Vietnam, Waldman launched a seminar course on 20th century American music, culture, and history as an integrated, content-based course. He adapted the course for use in the learning context of his students who have little access to the world beyond their own agricultural community. The interview reveals the dilemma teachers and students face when making the decision to go abroad.

An Interview with Volunteer Teacher Elliot Waldmanin Vietnam

Outreach: How did you make the leap from recent college graduate in Washington, DC to university English instructorin Thanh Hoa, Vietnam?

Elliot Waldman: In January, 2009, I was heading into the final semester of my college career without any concrete post-graduation plans, and feeling a little apprehensive about my future.Around that time, my school’s newsletter published alistofvarious programswhere there were still opportunities for employment for graduating seniors. I scanned the list, and found an organization called Volunteers in Asia (VIA), which offers long-term and summer service opportunities in Vietnam,Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. I’ve always been attracted to the culture and history of Southeast Asia, and Vietnam in particular, so I decided to apply to one of VIA’s summer programs in Hue, Vietnam’s ancient capital.

Outreach: How did you narrow your choice to a particular school?

Elliot: A few weeks after sending in my application, VIA’s Vietnam Program Director contacted me asking if I wouldn’t rather apply for the long-term program (one year, with the option of staying on for a secondyear). I gave it a lot of thought and discussed it with friends and family, weighed the pros and cons, and in the end decided there would be no better time in my life to take a journey like this.VIA offers a wide range of opportunities teaching English and working at NGO’s, but unlike many other volunteerand service-abroad organizations, the selection process is interactive. After discussions with the program director about how best to balance my own goals and expectations with those of VIA, we decided that Hong Duc University(HDU)in Thanh Hoa would be the best place for me. It was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve madeso far.

Outreach: How did being a volunteer affect your experience?

Elliot: Most significantly, being a volunteermade my job a whole lot less stressful than theplacementsother teachers I worked withhad. There is a lotof red tapeto go throughfor teachers whoget paid through Vietnamese universities.There is also a lot of fiscal negotiation between the university and for-profit partner organizations. My status as a volunteer allowed me to remain detached from such concerns and maintain a steady focus on my students.

Outreach: U.S. and Japanese universities are well equipped with computer labs and hi-tech classrooms. How does this compare withthe technology available atHDU?

Elliot: I spent most of my teaching hours in an ongoing special program at HDU called the International Education Center. The center isset up to train gifted students in English with the ultimate objective of sending them to study overseas. This program is assisted by a scholarship fund from the Thanh Hoa Provincial Peoples’ Committee,sothe facilities are at a pretty high standard.

Outreach: Do the teachers and students have adequate resources?

Elliot: Every classroom is equipped with a desktop computer, projector, and sound system.These classroomsandoffices are air-conditioned.This stands in stark contrast to other classrooms of the university, which really haven’t changed much since the buildings were first built 20 years ago (blackboard, fan, and hard desks and benches). Internet connectivity wasn’t completely reliable, but it was enough to get by.

Outreach: What role does English play in the lives of your students?

Elliot: The students in Thanh Hoa are amazing.Most of them are postgraduates and young professionals, so they are considerably more mature than most Vietnamese university students.They show an incredible drive to learn English. The meritocratic nature of the International Education Center as a scholarship program for gifted students and young professionalsmeantthere was a very diverse socioeconomic spectrum in myclassroom. My studentsincluded the sons and daughters of prominent local party officials andpeople from impoverished rural villages. While the less-privileged students often viewed their English studies as a way to open doors to a better standard of living, many of them were profoundly worriedabout the prospect of leaving their hometown to study overseas.

Outreach: Please share a story about one of your students.

Elliot: On one cold evening during the Tet (lunar new year) holidays, a student gave me a ride back to the university on his motorbike after I had been visiting his home. Over the course of the forty-minute drive through a cold and misty rain, he told me howmuchhe really wanted to succeed in his English studies.His dream is totravel abroad for his master’s degree, however,he is also the only able-bodied son in his family (his brother is blind).Hefeels he should stay at home and help with the farm work around his house. He spoke of the poverty of his family and his village.They have only enough electricity for one naked light bulb in each room of the house, and share anoutside toiletwith three other families.He comes from a long line of poor farmers. I was struck not only by his openness and honesty, but especially by the way he maintained an upbeat composure throughout the conversation. Despite going into detail about his family’s socioeconomic position, there was not a trace of indignation or resentment. To him, these were merely the facts of life;“My family is poor, so I just have to work a little harder than others to get what I want.”

Outreach:What lessons from this experience can you takewith you into the future?

Elliot:There are many, but perhaps most importantlyVIA helped me to cultivate a unique approach to inter-cultural interaction. Itry to bemindful of customs and traditions that motivate people and make them tick, while being careful not to unfairlygeneralizeeveryone Imeet. This experience has helped me learn how to draw that elusive linebetween an individual and the culture he or she comes from. Thisabilitywill prove particularly valuable in afuturecareer in cross-cultural education.

The column editor acknowledges the assistance of Alice Svendson in writing this interview. Learn more about VIA at <>.