My story as a volunteer in Vietnam: How I became a member of the Vietnam Student Development Fund (VNSDF)

By P. Huynh-Do (Ms)                      

I did not know so much about Vietnam when I accepted in 09/2005 from the organization VCHAP (Vietnam CDC Harvard AIDS Partnership) a job offer as a public health professional to fight against the AIDS epidemic in Vietnam: some childhood memories, growing up as a child in a house in District 1, in Saigon. I still spoke the language, but not well. I grew up in France and Switzerland and did a MPH in the US. But I still had a strong bond to my country of origin.

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During my 4-year stay in Vietnam, (2005- 2009), I became a volunteer in the non-profit organization: the Vietnam Student Development Fund (VNSDF). Here‘s how the VNSDF Association came to life.

In 02/2008, I was contacted by some pharmacists in Saigon because a poor 5th year female pharmacy student, Thu, was very ill with Tuberculosis. They asked for advice. After seeing in the TB-antibiogram that the student had a rare form of resistant Tuberculosis, I advised the pharmacists to organize a hospitalization at Pham Ngoc Thach hospital, the referral center for TB in South Vietnam. After a long expensive treatment (financed by collecting funds from donors in the US and VN), the student was cured of the disease and graduated. Without our help, she could not have been saved. Her parents were too poor to pay for the expensive second-line TB medications.

In July 2008, by chance, I read about a brilliant and poor student in Hanoi, NG T. Long, who was in danger of becoming blind because of a subluxation of the eye lens due to a rare disease called Marfan disease (Hãy cứu lấy đôi mắt của một thủ khoa !! http://doimatthukhoa.wordpress.com/). I asked by email if he needed help: he was searching for a guide during the stay in Singapore to bring him several times to the NUS eye hospital for an operation. His friends and a humanitarian organization had collected the funding but he could barely see, so he had to find someone to help him through the streets of Singapore. I put him in contact with a friend, called Thao who was studying there; she accepted to bring him back and forth to the eye hospital. The operation was a success and he could resume his studies in Hanoi.

I corresponded with him and got interested in students. These experiences demonstrated that I could give useful advice to Vietnamese students because I had access to lots of information that they did not have. I realized that a small group of committed persons can do a lot to help poor students.

End of 2008, I was introduced by a Vietkieu friend to the non-profit organization Viethope that gives scholarships to poor primary, high school and 1st year university students in Vietnam. Anh Phong, chi Minh Phuong, the executive Director and Vice-Director of Viethope-Vietnam said that unfortunately the organization did not have funding to support students after the 1st University year. They asked me if I could find sponsors for some 2nd year and advanced students who were so poor that they did not have enough money for tuition fees and living costs; these students were in constant danger of dropping out, either because they did not have the finances, or because they had to work too many hours to support themselves, with adverse effect on their studies. I still remember the personal stories of some students: for ex. LV Xuan, a half orphan whose father died at the age of 35, and whose family was living below the poverty level (income of <200000VND/person/month) in the Mekong Delta. Xuan is studying tourism at Can Tho university: now he has grades of > 8.5/10. P. C Dung, whose family also lives below the poverty level in Soc Trang, and who is studying to be a maths teacher at Univ. Can Tho: his younger sister had to drop out of school because the family was too poor to send 2 children to school. Dung has very good grades and his own student group (Studenthope) to help the less fortunate in the community: they collected funds and distributed school supplies to poor pupils in Soc Trang. N D Hai, a medical student at DHYND Saigon, who had to drop off a year after high school graduation despite being one of the best students in Grade 12 (with marks of 8.7/10), because he had to work in the fields around his poor family’s home in Tien Giang, to save money for the 1st university year. Now he’ll begin the 3rd year and is very engaged at the University and in community-based projects, having participated in Green Summer campaigns. I met many students at the Youth summit organized by Viethope and VNSDF members near Saigon in 2009 and 2010 to train the students in community work.

A touching case was a 2nd year medical student in Can Tho, N. Van Oanh, who was about to drop out in 2009, because his mother fell ill with renal disease. His father, a poor lottery seller, could not afford the medical fees for her and the tuition fees for Oanh.

I then found among friends in VN and overseas individual sponsors/mentors for these poor students and several others: most sponsors/mentors agreed to support the students with a 200USD scholarship/student/year from the 2nd year till graduation (250USD/year in academic year 2011 due to inflation & increase in tuition fees in Vietnam). We created the VNSDF to collect the donations.

Unfortunately VNSDF could not satisfy all the many demands (Viethope gave about 350 first year University scholarships in 2010). VNSDF chose the most deserving and socially engaged students, or some dramatic cases, coming from families affected by illness or accident.

If someone wants to sponsor a student, please contact the VNSDF. PLEASE HELP! The students are the future of Vietnam!

Thank you. P. Huynh-Do, coordinator, Executive Committee of the Vietnam Student Development Fund (1.06.2011)

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