30 Miles Southwest of Salina

This coming Friday I am going to Vietnam.  In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about this but how this came to pass and will come to take place is somewhat remarkable.

I teach Statistics at Colorado State University (CSU).  Last Fall 2014, I was taking an introductory Chinese course for pleasure.  In the class, I happened to notice there was a sizable cohort of very bright Vietnamese students.  When I asked why they were enrolled in the course, they explained that they were part of an international program.  Specifically, they spent the first 3 years enrolled at Foreign Trade University of Hanoi as Economics majors.  Then, they came over to CSU for the final year of their BS degree program.

As time went by, I became good friends with several of them to the point where in May of this year, we decided to take a big road trip together before they were to return to Vietnam.  And so it was that Lan Nguyen, Thao Tran, Hieu Nguyen and I climbed into a rental van and proceeded to drive over 2,400 miles across 4 states and several national parks in the desert southwest, hiking, snowshoeing, whitewater rafting, sightseeing, horseback riding, and skydiving all along the way.

Towards the end of the trip, one early evening, driving about 30 miles southwest of Salina, Utah, Hieu and I got into a robust conversation about his time at CSU.  He innocently asked, “Why doesn’t your Statistics department have a 3 + 1 program with a university in Vietnam?”.  While I gave him some basic reasons as to why we didn’t, nevertheless I thought about what he said for several days after the trip.

Once back at CSU, the Vietnamese students returned back to their homes.  I asked Hieu, via the magic of WeChat, to gather information and identify a university with a good Statistics program in Vietnam that could serve as a potential partner with CSU.  Hieu identified Can Tho University, in the southern part of the country, and so I reached out via email to their administration and faculty (“cold called” is a better term!).  They were open and supportive of such a venture.  Next, I approached my Chair about the idea.  With his encouragement, all of a sudden this idea has taken on a life of its own.  Sparing you all the details over the past several months, in a nutshell, there have been meetings at CSU with the Economics Department, the Office of International Programs, the faculty members of the Statistics Department, and several other administrators.  I’ve been so impressed with the work other forward-thinking people at CSU are doing with respect to international programs and their words and acts of support; I tip my hat to them.  Through all of this, there has even been talk of my department exploring a similar partnership with a university in China.

So, this has all led to the following.  Several weeks ago, after a long sequence of email exchanges, I was invited to Can Tho University to “meet-and-greet” the faculty and administration.  I’ll be leaving this Friday for 9 days.  Here is the irony of all of this.  With the support of CSU, I will first stop in Hanoi to pick up … wait for it … Hieu, the very person who proposed the idea that started all this!  The two of us will then depart the next day for Can Tho.  He will act as a guide, translator, and also speak to those at Can Tho about his positive experience last year at CSU.  Isn’t life so strangely beautiful?!  Even better, I’ll be spending Thanksgiving not eating turkey in Colorado, but eating pho in Hanoi with the same three friends I went on the road trip with back in May 🙂

Of course, this might not lead to anything and, even if it did, there will certainly be hurdles of challenges ahead.  But my personality is such that I focus not on the problems, but on the promise.  Of course, the ultimate professional goal is to increase the prestige and revenues for CSU.  What is more important to me, and I don’t pretend for anyone to understand this, lies at a deeper, more personal level.  Your life is but a grain of sand on an endless beach.  Time is flying by.  I think the most important question anyone can ever ask and (hopefully) answer is, “What will be my contribution to the planet?”.  Yes, I want this program to happen to benefit CSU but, more importantly, I want this program to happen because I see the huge positive impact a year or two of studying abroad has had on many international students.  For example, I saw the metamorphosis occur in my Vietnamese friends just in the space of a year, this blossoming into adults.  Furthermore, I could think of no greater testimony to their excellent characters and to our time spent together molding and shaping each other in an upward dance, then if this program were to become a reality.  And all because of a chance conversation 30 miles southwest of Salina …

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