For my education abroad program, I chose to go to Vietnam for the 2017 spring semester. The program is a non-Binghamton program, and is actually run by SUNY Brockport. I am studying Vietnamese history, politics, culture, and language. I also have community service that is done every week. It is based in the city of Đà Nẵng. Since I am drawing closer to the end of my undergraduate studies, this seemed to be prime moment to act on a rare opportunity of this sort. I also came to work on the Global Studies Minor. It has been a great experience being here. I found a country that fulfilled what became a lifelong goal, and I actually live in the same city as one of my relatives. The one realtive who lives in the city is my great-uncle. My lifelong goal of the past seven years was to leave the United States again, having gone to Mongolia while I was still a junior in high school. Moving to Vietnam had actually made me relive some of that experience.
The one thing that has surprised me the most is the amount of disparity I have witnessed. One component of my program is that I, and my other classmates, go out on regular community service details. This is my second time living in a third world country, and never before have I seen such a stark contrast from my own country. Now I know that I am ignorant about the American social aid system. The limit of my knowledge is that it is mostly privately organized. But from what I have seen in and around Đà Nẵng, and the efforts of the government to fix the numerous problems, the Vietnamese take more aggressive action to end them. I visit with families with disabilities, and orphans. Many of those who are disabled suffer from the effects of the chemical weapon known as “Agent Orange.” One of the most devastating things about it is that it can be passed on to future generations.
My biggest challenge being here has been with language. There have two factors that contribute to this challenge. The biggest factor is that I moved from studying one language back home, to a new one here. I knew going into this that learning Vietnamese was one of the pre-arranged requirements. I had previously been learning Arabic at Binghamton. So, to learn a new tongue with no prior experience, at first, was discouraging. The other factor that I faced was being forced to speak English more slowly. This is still something I have difficulty with. I have to speak slowly because one of my community service duties is to teach English to Vietnamese university students. I do this when I am with my uncle too. He is originally from France, and his English is limited, as is my French.
One of the things that I have done is incorporate myself as much as possible into the Vietnamese culture. I strive to use my language skills at every chance, and I have adopted some of the customs that are exhibited by the people. The one that I practice the most is at every meal, I wait for all of my housemates to be present before I eat. One of the ways that I have blended into the culture was the pledge I made to abstain from all food that is familiar to me. There have been times that I have not fully adhered to this, but those cases were not my own choices.
I would encourage people to actively pursue a semester abroad. It is a rare experience that few would have a chance at getting. Whatever one’s academic pursuits are, this type of opportunity will enhance them in more ways than one. You will be forever changed, and go home with a greater respect for the outside world.
Robert Contiguglia, a History major and Global Studies Minor, currently participating in a service learning, education abroad program in Da Nang, Vietnam