Viewin Vietnam Through a New Lens
Nhat Thu Nguyen grew up in a small city in Vietnam, where her family and friends were just steps away. They spent most of their waking hours together as a family.
People would gather outside in the evening as the temperature cooled. They would come together at coffee shops, food stands, night markets and karaoke joints. “I would say life in Vietnam depends a lot on where you live,” Nguyen said. “I was born in the Mekong Delta, grew up there and spent part of my adulthood there. Life in the Mekong Delta is peaceful and carefree.”
While working at An Giang University, Nguyen decided to attend the Summer Social Work Institute out of curiosity. There, she met Neal Newfield, an associate professor in the West Virginia University School of Social Work, and his wife Susan, an associate professor and chair of family and community health at the WVU School of Nursing.
With the Newfields’ encouragement, Nguyen would move to Morgantown to pursue a Master of Social Work at WVU.
“The Newfields initially sparked my interest in social work,” Nguyen said. “The MSW equipped me with the knowledge and skills I need for my current job. The time I spent as a student in Morgantown helped improve my English as well as my understanding of American culture in general and West Virginia culture in particular.”
Into a New World
In 2005, the Newfields joined a team to organize and teach a series of social work workshops at An Giang University, part of an effort to build the field of social work in the region while also addressing cultural issues such as poverty and human trafficking. There were few professors in the discipline. This partnership launched the creation of the Summer Social Work and Community Health Institute.
Since then, the Newfields also partner with nongovernmental organizations to consult with people in Vietnam about the profession of social work.
“For us, we went to Vietnam for two weeks of teaching and met a whole bunch of interesting people,” Neal Newfield said. “Based on our interactions with them, we made a 10-year commitment to teaching in Vietnam whether we had University funding, grant support or not. It was a personal commitment.”
Graduate and undergraduate students at WVU can travel with the Newfields as part of a study abroad course. The Newfields have traveled to Vietnam every summer for 13 years and have brought over 100 WVU students.
“It’s a pretty overwhelming experience because it’s like you are entering another world,” said Andrew Barnes, interim director of development for the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, who traveled with the Newfields to Vietnam while completing a graduate degree from the WVU Reed College of Media. “There’s just so many sights, sounds, smells and noises. The Newfields have planted a flying WV flag, figuratively speaking, in Vietnam, and WVU is lucky to have a unique presence there.”
Looking Through a New Lens
The Newfields’ Vietnam and Community Health Initiative has three goals: building capacity for individuals working with mental health issues in the community, expanding WVU students’ knowledge of other cultures and serving as consultants to nongovernmental organizations that work with special populations at risk for human trafficking.
“One goal is to provide students from WVU with a multicultural experience to expand their self-knowledge and expertise in working with difference – to put a new lens on the world,” Susan Newfield said. “This often leads to personal growth and increasing their interpersonal competencies. The students are introduced to professionals in Vietnam who have built relationships with us over the years. In these connections, they gain a rich understanding of the culture and the people.”
While the students learn about Vietnamese culture, the Vietnamese people they interact with also have an opportunity to enhance their English and increase their understanding of American culture.
“This consultation between the students and Vietnamese increases their knowledge of the issues encountered by workers in Vietnam on a daily basis,” Susan Newfield said. “That enriches our teaching to both the Vietnamese and U.S. participants.”
Neal Newfield wants WVU students to interact with Vietnam as travelers, not as tourists.
“We try not to live in too much of a bubble,” Neal Newfield said. “Tourists get on a bus, they don’t interact with the people, they stay in high-priced hotels and then they go home. During our time there, the emphasis is on engagement.”
Neal and Susan Newfield both work in mental health. However, they both have their own areas of expertise. Neal Newfield has more experience with therapies while Susan Newfield has practiced with adolescents and in a school-based environment. Her background is in nursing and healthcare, which allows her to serve as a resource if the WVU students have health issues or concerns on the trip.
Just as Neal Newfield and Susan Newfield have a diverse range of expertise, the students that travel with them do as well, coming from various academic disciplines, places and upbringings.
“Diversity of background and experience is always important,” Barnes said. “It allows people to see things differently than they would normally see them.”
Head, Heart, Health, Hands and Vietnam
Denis Scott, a WVU Extension Service civic engagement and global education specialist, first became involved with the initiative to teach at the National Social Work and Community Health Institute, which the Newfields founded and direct. Scott collaborated with several partners, including Pacific Link’s Project Adapt team, to strengthen their camping program for at-risk youth, especially young women, to encourage them to stay in school and gain more marketable skills to succeed in the workforce.
Scott later identified an opportunity to bridge the gap between West Virginia and Vietnam through the state’s 4-H camps. 4-H is a national program administered through land-grant universities in all 50 states and U.S. territories.
“4-H brings university-based youth development programming to kids in school, after school and in club and camp settings around subject matters in three broad topic areas of STEM, healthy living and civic engagement,” Scott said. “It teaches youth to be well rounded as they develop into adults by showing them how elements of the four Hs — head, heart, hands and health — are each important and useful in their own ways.”
While he was in Vietnam, Scott met with parents and young people who were interested in visiting WVU 4-H camps to recruit participants for the international camper program. He shared the cultural differences and explained what a week at WVU Jackson’s Mill State 4-H camp is like. He also discussed what WVU is like, because all international campers that participate in the program get to visit WVU and tour campus. An average of 10 Vietnamese youth participate in the program each year.
“I was able to forge greater connections between Vietnamese and West Virginia youth while helping our West Virginia teens see themselves in a global context,” Scott said. “We brought some of the world to West Virginia and West Virginia to the world.”
In 2016, Scott collaborated with the Newfields to create a study abroad program, the WVU 4-H Global Ambassador Program, which takes seven West Virginia college-aged 4-H campers and six WVU study abroad students to Vietnam and Cambodia. After returning, the students travel throughout the state to present on their experiences.
“One goal is to provide students from WVU with a multicultural experience to expand their self-knowledge and expertise in working with difference — to put a new lens on the world.”
“Hosting international campers is important for the youth from the visiting country,” Scott said. “However, the international camper program is probably more important for our West Virginia youth. Every year campers tell me personal anecdotes about how they’ve never met anyone from another country, but now they have a new friend in Vietnam. This global education programming is crucial for our West Virginia youth who may be going off to colleges or jobs in areas with more diverse populations or working for local West Virginia companies that are connected to the global economy.”
Finding a Home in Morgantown
While Nguyen does have a great support system in Morgantown, life in West Virginia is very different from her life in Vietnam, where her family and friends constantly interacted.
“My experience in Morgantown has been positive,” Nguyen said. “The first night I was here, I cried because I felt so lonely. I didn’t hear the familiar sound of people talking to each other on the street, kids playing, food vendors introducing their food to pedestrians. Everyone seems to mind their own business.”
The Newfields connect Vietnamese students to each other, provide a support system and even help them find places to live.
“The Newfields have been not only assisting in my academic and professional path, but also in my personal journey,” Nguyen said. “They look out for me and other Vietnamese students at WVU to make sure we have the support we need to be successful in the U.S.”
The Newfields often welcome the students into their own home for holiday celebrations. They host a party every year to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese term for the Lunar New Year’s. They consider the Vietnamese students to be heroes because of the amount of courage it takes to adapt to another culture.
“The students from Vietnam come from a culture where family and connections are important,” Susan Newfield said. “Having a place, an anchor, where this can happen in the U.S. provides that support. It also provides a place for them to share traditional Vietnamese holidays and U.S. holidays.”
By creating this initiative and a support system, the Newfields also foster a strong relationship with the students. They have attended various weddings — including the wedding of Nguyen and Andrew Barnes.
“The richness of the connections made between the Vietnamese participants, the U.S. students and Neal and I is immeasurable,” Susan Newfield said. “Many of the U.S. students have commented that the interactions in Vietnam changed their lives and [they] remain in contact with the Vietnamese students and professionals they met. Several have returned to Vietnam to visit or develop other projects.”