There is nothing obscure about the objectives of educational exchange. Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is – not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is…’
– J William Fulbright
As I observed in a 17 April article, “View from Vietnam: COVID-19 reminds the world that Trump has no clothes”: “The coronavirus lays bare on an almost daily basis the litany of faults and weaknesses of Donald Trump and the country he was elected to lead.”
While it appears the malignant narcissist-in-chief may very well exit stage left in January 2021, the seemingly intractable social and economic crises facing the United States, some of whose flames he has fanned through his divisive rhetoric and destructive policies, or simply by doing nothing, will remain.
Added to the ongoing existential COVID-19 crisis, which is skyrocketing in most states, is the shocking and sadistic cold-blooded murder by police of George Floyd, which has shaken the nation to its core.
Most recently, there is the hotly contested cynical, cold-hearted and downright cruel decision by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to force international students who are not enrolled in in-person academic programmes this fall to leave the US (which has now been rescinded).
Seeing the good, the bad and the ugly
Floyd’s murder motivated Cornel West, the outspoken public intellectual and a professor of the practice of public philosophy in the Harvard Divinity School, to exclaim in an extraordinary seven-minute interview in late May that “we are witnessing America as a failed social experiment”, not a statement one hears very often in the US mainstream media.
While West’s assertion may be debatable, the fact is that the protests, riots and looting, including the photos and video that brought to life the horror of it all, received daily worldwide coverage, including in the Vietnamese media.
A cursory glance at social media, especially Facebook, which ranks second in the country with a 67% penetration rate, reveals not only extensive sharing of Vietnamese language articles, but also regular updates and videos from Vietnamese students and Vietnamese-Americans in the US.
Current events in the US have pulled back the curtain to reveal a dysfunctional society that is a source of suffering for many of its members and a cause of global instability. In a 30 May 2020 opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “America is a Tinderbox”, Michelle Goldberg concluded with this gloomy sentiment: “No one knows how dark things could get, only that, in the Trump era, scenes that seem nightmarish one day come to look almost normal the next.”
Most of the remaining cultural myths about the US are being detonated in spectacular fashion with the detritus still raining down upon us. Not only does Donald Trump not have any clothes, neither does the country of which he is president, a responsibility he has abdicated in spades to anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear and a rational mind with which to draw logical conclusions.
This substantive preamble brings me to Senator Fulbright’s famous quote about the objectives of educational exchange, which includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
Much of the latter two are on full display for US Americans and the rest of the world to see, including institutionalised racism, extreme income and wealth inequality and its many damaging side effects, a double-digit unemployment rate, widespread police brutality, deepening poverty, a banking system that may be on the verge of collapse and nationalism, among other hot-button issues such as off-the-charts gun violence and the worst workers’ rights record in the developed world.
Glimmers of hope
A silver lining in the protests that have occurred in all 50 states of the US is that people of different races and from divergent walks of life have been radicalised in the true meaning of the word, borrowed in the 14th century from the Late Latin radicalis, meaning relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something.
They are also exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and assembly in pursuit of the lofty goal of ridding their country of racism and addressing related issues.
Another silver lining is that Trumpenvolk are a statistical minority. Many US Americans, including the friends and colleagues I work with, are kind, caring, compassionate, open-minded and not prisoners of a nationalist ideology whose adherents believe – come hell or high water – that the US is “the greatest nation on Earth”.
These are the people who give me hope. They know, based on education, work, travel and intuition that every country has greatness, past and present, along with strengths and shortcomings.
This goodness is one of the reasons why I remained committed to helping young Vietnamese who wish to study in the US. I know that they and other international students will be welcomed, taken good care of, and be afforded unique opportunities that will serve them well in their personal and professional lives.
The rhetoric and actions of those who identify as patriots and global citizens with national affiliation reflect their view that “to criticise one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing”, another timeless Fulbright quote, and a brilliant distillation of the essence of patriotism.
Educational exchange is not first and foremost an official charm offensive, a tool (or weapon) of soft power, a way to impress international students and scholars, a means of persuading them to become host country patriots or nationalists or a lucrative way to improve an institution’s bottom line. It is, as Senator Fulbright stated, a golden opportunity to see host countries as they are, in all of their glory, infamy and that amorphous territory of grey in between.
Another reason I choose to continue helping young Vietnamese who wish to study in the US is the nature of the experience itself. It is a chance to acquire knowledge and experience, develop lasting personal and professional networks, and learn what can and cannot be adapted for use at home – with three-way benefits for participants, home countries and the host nations. Overseas study has the potential to intellectually liberate its participants.
Promoting study in the US in trying times
In a February 2020 article, “Vietnamese student enrolment in the US holds steady”, I summarised the status of Vietnamese students in the US, as of January 2020. At the time, there were nearly 30,000 young Vietnamese studying at all levels, primarily in higher education.
While enrolments have stagnated in recent years, they were still healthy. Obviously, that was before COVID-19 began to spread internationally and quickly metamorphose into a global pandemic. That was also months before the murder by blue of George Floyd and the subsequent blowback, not to mention the real-time implosion of the current US president.
So, what do Vietnamese make of the recent avalanche of bad news cascading from the US? Not much, according to anecdotal evidence from conversations and social media posts and comments. If people start a conversation with “The situation in the US is so complicated now, right?”, the response is often “Yes” and they change the subject.
Vietnamese have expressed anger about key issues without linking them to their intention to study in the US. Some parents whose children have been studying online have even expressed the glass-half-full view that this method of instruction is a good opportunity for their children to “practise self-study” and engage in self-reflection.
Those whose sons and daughters are still in the US are not worried because their children’s “location and situation are good”. This perception is also a credit to the host institutions’ ability to take care of their students and keep stakeholders informed and reassured about their policies and actions.
Some parents have stated that what is happening in the US now is “normal” because it’s election year; others wish the US the best during these difficult times.
One student who’s studying at a university in a city that has been affected by both peaceful and violent protests responded to a friend online who criticised that city by sharing links to information indicating that the crime rate is generally low and that there are few incidents of police brutality directed towards black people. This was an attempt to put things in local perspective and make the point that most of the US remains safe and peaceful.
Interestingly, many of those Vietnamese who are most critical of the US tend to be people who have no interest in studying there. Not surprisingly, given the position of safety as a cornerstone of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there seems to be more concern about the status of COVID-19 than anything else.
Most parents just hope the situation in the US will improve so their children can proceed with their study plans. For now, their plan is not to choose another country but to wait until the US stabilises and returns to some semblance of normality.
Even the COVID-19 pandemic and its mishandling by the federal government and segments of the population has prompted some choice comments on social media. One of the many thousands of comments in response to an article in translation about young people in Alabama throwing “coronavirus parties” came from a student at a talented and gifted school in Hanoi, who remarked that “the level of stupidity is positively correlated with the development of the country”.
While study in the US has lost its lustre in recent years because of the cumulative effects of official xenophobic and nativist statements, proposals and policies, along with other factors such as cost and the perennial student visa conundrum, it remains a global brand.
The days when the US educational institutions could rest on their laurels and expect international students to continue to come in droves simply because they built it – without sustained and creative marketing and promotion – are long gone.
Light at the end of the recruitment tunnel?
As with other sending countries, we can expect to see a dramatic decline in Vietnamese student enrolment this autumn in the US. The American Council on Education predicts that international enrolment for the upcoming academic year will decline by as much as 25%, meaning there could be 220,000 fewer international students in the US than in 2019-20.
On the bright side, we can expect at least a partial rebound in 2021. There will be delayed gratification for many institutions that are either teaching classes online this autumn and-or are operating in an unstable environment that prevents international travel for recruitment activities, and in which parents and students have their sights set on spring or autumn 2021.
The bottom line in the COVID-19 era is that recruitment strategies must be revised to include extensive digital marketing and participation in a series of targeted virtual events, in addition to dynamic relationships with quality and ethical education agents. In-country representation is highly recommended for institutions with a long-term strategy and sufficient means.
Outreach activities should focus not only on the institutions but also continue to promote study in the US in an “exactly as it is” full disclosure mode. Parents and students value honesty.
In the spirit of “this, too, shall pass”, many of those educational institutions that have taken good care of their international students during the COVID-19 pandemic and whose leadership is committed to maintaining robust recruitment efforts will be rewarded in the 2021-22 academic year.
A version of this essay first appeared in World University News.