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Human Development Students Break Through Cultural Barriers in Vietnam

By Margaret Chantung

After a 15-hour flight from San Diego to Seoul, Korea, followed by a six-hour connecting flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the ten students in CSUSM’s Human Development 495 Field Experience course finally arrived, weary but excited, in Vietnam for their immersive three-week course during CSUSM’s winter intersession this January.

For the majority of the ten students on the trip, landing in Ho Chi Minh City – the largest metropolis in Vietnam with a population of over eight million – was a culture shock. Even crossing the street, where the traffic is dominated by throngs of zigzagging motorbikes, was a harrowing experience. But central to the process of studying abroad in an unfamiliar environment is the process of experiencing cultural differences and making an effort to understand the ways of a host country.

“Faculty-lead study abroad experiences help students to recognize that assumptions and judgment are intertwined and that cultural differences and language barriers set a stage for assumptions and judgment,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bigham, Human Development program director and instructor for the course.

Understanding and Assessing Cultural Differences

Despite its growing economy, the average weekly wage in Vietnam is only $50 a week and 20 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Nearly 1.5 million children reside in orphanages like the one CSUSM students traveled to in Hue, a city in central Vietnam, to conduct their field experience.  The non-adopting orphanage is home to about 200 children and run by Buddhist nuns. Many of the children who reside there were abandoned at birth or came from families too poor to support them. 

“During the first days at the orphanage, students observed and took note of factors in the environment that, according to the literature as they understood it, would foster or inhibit biological, sociological and psychological human development,” said Bigham. “We had already spent a few days in Vietnam before we arrived at the orphanage and we had had daily discussions about the physical, cultural and economic environment—but now they were asked to identify how these would impact human development. The students quickly found it difficult to separate what they knew empirically and theoretically from what was familiar to them and accepted in American culture.”

Some of the students were concerned that the children did not have sufficient supervision, were not properly hygienic or did not have adequate academic preparation. Bigham and the students discussed their concerns and evaluated them as cultural differences and environmental differences.

“For instance, we discussed why there were so few toys at the orphanage and what function toys served for the children,” said Bigham. “Through these engaging discussions, observations and reflections in our nightly meetings, students considered multiple contingencies and perspectives. Instead of feeling the need to go raise money for toys, they eventually determined that the lack of toys was not a deficit for the children. In fact, the orphanage got a lot of toys donated while we were there but they didn’t seem to fit into the children’s style of play. And once the donors left, the toys were pushed aside.”

“It was quite shocking to see the vast difference in their living conditions and ours,” said student Ronald Durham. “However, I was intrigued by it. Everyone seemed to value people and relationships rather than material stuff, which had a profound effect on me.”

Students logged 90 hours each in the orphanage, participating in a wide range of activities that supported the development of the children, such as providing tutoring in mathematics, coloring, playing soccer and other sports, and helping with meals and feedings.  In addition, the students were required to keep daily journals and met each evening for 90 minutes to debrief and reflect on their shared experiences. Many of the students on the trip noted that overcoming the language barrier was difficult at first, but the students quickly found ways to overcome it.

“Being the only male, I was instantly sucked into the boys group,” said Durham. “The first moment was ‘you, you, you, football!’ and I was in. From there I developed a place among the boys and I really felt like I had brothers. I played, I taught, I explored, I laughed, I slept with them. I was one of them.”

“The most memorable thing that happened to me on this trip was when the kids dragged me down to the kitchen/dining room and told me to eat lunch with them,” said student Lucille Nhan. “This made me feel like I was a part of their big family and they wanted me there as a part of it.”

A Life-Changing Learning Experience

Both Durham and Nhan said that their Vietnam experience was life changing. In addition to their time conducting research in the orphanage, the students also had a chance to get a taste of the country through sightseeing, tours, shopping and authentic meals out.

“I rediscovered myself,” said Durham. “Having that time to experience something new and away from everything else gave me a chance to examine my own perspective of reality and become more in tune with myself.”

“Traveling is a great way to broaden your views,” said Nhan. “And a country like Vietnam has so much history.”

For those interested in future study abroad trips, visit