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My Vietnam Experience

By Bella Vandenberg ‘23

The ILR International Programs Office and the Scheinman Institute offer students a unique learning experience by participating in a two-week Engaged Learning opportunity in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, formerly known as Saigon.

The Engaged Learning Program is offered each winter break, The two-credit course was founded by Richard Fincher, a member of the Scheinman Institute Advisory Board and an ILR BS graduate and labor lawyer, and Donna Ramil of ILR International Programs. Fincher taught at the university in Vietnam for a semester on a Fulbright Scholarship and brought six ILR students there in the first year.

The focus of the Program concerns labor relations and conflict resolution in the global supply chain. ILR students live on campus in dorms, eat in canteens, and learn about labor relations and dispute resolution with peers from Ton Duc Thang University (TDTU). The state university has an academic department in labor relations and human resources with 600 undergraduate students. ILR students are required to complete a research paper, which includes reflections on their personal experience in the country.

Reflections on the experience

The Winter 2023 Vietnam Engaged Learning Program challenged my personal and academic beliefs in a meaningful way. As an ILR student at Cornell, I was taught about the labor issues in Vietnam, specifically the narratives about how workers are taken advantage of due to the lack of independent unions. However, my experience allowed me to see the country in a new light. During the Program, I witnessed firsthand the incredible work done by nonprofits, companies, and workers to protect workers' rights in Vietnam.

This experience allowed me to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complex labor relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam and to unlearn the biases and assumptions I previously held.

This experience prompted me to realize how my cultural background shapes my behavior and perceptions. It reminded me to be aware of cultural differences and to approach every situation with an open mind rather than making assumptions based on my cultural lens because differences can often lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

The experience also reinforced my belief in the importance of cultural competency in a globalized world. I learned that cultural differences could significantly impact classroom dynamics and that a deeper understanding can help create a more inclusive and effective learning environment.

Additionally, the Vietnam Program provided valuable insights and experiences that will inform my future academic and professional pursuits. The knowledge I gained from the Vietnam EL Program regarding the complex labor relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam has broadened my perspective and enabled me to approach my future career goals with a deeper understanding of the global market.

As I plan to work in strategy consulting after graduation, I expect to encounter clients in the consumer products sector who outsource their manufacturing process to Vietnam or other Southeast Asian countries. My experience in Vietnam has equipped me with the first-hand experience and cultural understanding needed to approach these consulting projects with empathy and sensitivity.

Moreover, my experience in Vietnam has allowed me to establish a personal connection with the country and its people. I connected with and learned from Vietnamese university students during the Program. I am so grateful for the students’ willingness to welcome us with open arms and approach every conversation with an open heart.

I made lifelong friends, whether through playing volleyball with the students in my free time or singing American pop songs at the top of our lungs on the bus rides home.

I highly recommend this program to other students who are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of different cultures and expanding their labor relations knowledge in a global context. At the ILR School, we learn about international and comparative labor relations, but international experiences bring our learning to life.

By engaging with the university students, industry experts, and union representatives, I heard their authentic perspective on the most prevalent labor issues in Vietnam and current efforts to protect workers. The Program propelled personal and professional growth by strengthening my cross-cultural competency and appreciation for Vietnamese culture.