As a girl growing up in war-ravaged Vietnam, Doan Thi Ngoc lived most days and nights in hunger.
Life never got much better there for her as an adult.
She worked as a maid, street vendor and held several other “terrible jobs.”
“People treated me badly,” she reflected. “I was like a servant.”
Ngoc worked as a cook and eventually secured a job as a hotel desk clerk with enough money to attend Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Her dream after getting an undergraduate degree was to some day earn a graduate degree in social work.
Ngoc had to leave her country to pursue her dream. Now she has the opportunity to go beyond her dream and earn a Ph.D. in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. Once that journey’s completed, she’ll return to Vietnam – the same place her dreams originated but never materialized.
“My first dream job was to be a policewoman,” she said. “I couldn’t carry that dream, so I turned to social work. That was the best fit for me.”
Some might harbor ill will toward a country after experiencing such unsavory times there. Instead, Ngoc wants to employ the knowledge she’s acquired here to better her homeland when she returns.
Ngoc’s area of interest – social work – is an underappreciated yet slowly rising profession in Vietnam. Trained social workers are sparse among Vietnam’s population of 90 million people – the government didn’t recognize social work as an official profession until May 2010. That year, the country kicked off a massive campaign to overhaul its social-support system over the next decade.
Within 10 years, Vietnam hopes to add more counseling services and crisis hotlines, revamp social welfare laws, educate police and spend $123 million to train tens of thousands of social workers. Trained professionals are needed to deal with a wide range of problems plaguing Southeast Asia including poverty, human trafficking, domestic violence, drug addiction, mental illness, and disabilities caused by Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War.
Emerging from a sea of poverty and lack of opportunities herself, Ngoc understands the need to help her disadvantaged countrymen and women.
“I lived a really hard life,” she said. “That is why I chose social work.”
If not for the Division of Social Work’s initiative in Vietnam, Ngoc might still be dreaming of a graduate degree in social work.
Since 2006, the Division of Social Work in the School of Applied Social Sciences has fostered a relationship with universities, students and social workers in Vietnam. That year, WVU partnered with An Giang University in southern Vietnam to help develop social work programs in that country. Faculty and students have taken summer trips to the country annually since then.
Ngoc happened to meet the WVU Social Work team, consisting of Neal Newfield, an associate professor of social work, and other university faculty. Other team members include Chatman Neely, senior social work lecturer; Newfield’s wife, Susan Newfield, an associate professor in the School of Nursing Jim Keresztury, associate director of Cancer Prevention and Control at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center Jim Keim, of the Southeast Asia Children’s Project; and Julian Nguyen, of the WVU Undergraduate Advising Services Center.
Neal Newfield invited Ngoc to apply to the WVU graduate program in social work during one of the team’s annual trips. The Division of Social Work approved a tuition waiver for her, and Ngoc ventured 8,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean to WVU.
Newfield helped launch WVU’s Vietnam initiative upon realizing the country’s lack of residents with advanced social work degrees. In addition to the team’s conducting seminars and workshops geared toward handling social issues, they also use the opportunity to recruit students, like Ngoc, to come study social work at WVU. In six years, four Vietnamese students have become Mountaineers, thanks to this team’s efforts.
As a young adult in 1990, Ngoc wanted to go to college but did not have the resources. Ten years later, she finally enrolled in a Vietnamese university and studied sociology. She earned her bachelor’s degree at age 32.
To further her aspirations of becoming a social worker, Ngoc decided she needed to leave Vietnam to receive advanced training in that field at WVU.
“If I hadn’t gone to the U.S., I’d never understand how to get help for our people,” she said. “As I move to the doctoral level, I’m thinking not just for myself, but for my country. My country needs experts in social work. Dr. Newfield and the other WVU professors who’ve come to my country are really good. They’re external resources. But we need internal resources to build our country.”
Ngoc got to return to her native country for two weeks this summer when WVU co-sponsored a ‘Social Work and Community Health Services Summer Institute’ at An Giang University, Long Xuyen. In addition, Ngoc traveled with the team to Da Nang where they offered workshops for Vietnamese social service workers on how to work with handicapped and traumatized children.
During her visit, two universities in Vietnam offered her the position of dean of their respective social sciences/humanities colleges. She declined, saying she’s not interested in administrative work, but rather conducting research, teaching and helping people.
“Social work made my path stronger,” Ngoc said. “I want to give back to my society. I want to serve as an example to any vulnerable woman, or person, in Vietnam or the U.S.”
As part of its major social welfare system overhaul, Vietnam hopes to have 60,000 trained social workers by 2020. A July 2010 “Time” article reported that only 30 people in the country held an advanced degree in social work.
Ngoc hopes to increase that figure.
“Traditionally, people in Vietnam think of social work as charity, not scientific study,” she said. “Culture and society are so different. There’s a lot of focus on the family. That means whenever we have problems, it’s up to the family to resolve the problem. Not other people. Not the government.”
Newfield said they were unable to take many students to Vietnam this year because of budget cuts, but they plan to next summer.
He said he and his colleagues made a commitment to visit Vietnam for 10 consecutive years to help build the country’s social work programs.
The group usually visits social service agencies, homeless shelters and facilities for the disabled for a first-hand look at how Vietnam treats such dilemmas. Their interests also extend into Cambodia.
They’ve even visited brothels in Cambodia. In these brothels, one often finds women trafficked or recruited from Vietnam.
Human sex trafficking and prostitution is a major concern in Southeast Asia.
“We take students to a brothel so they can put faces on the issues we’re talking about,” Newfield said.
The group does this with the permission of brothel owners and is accompanied by security. Visiting a brothel is voluntary on the part of the students.
Newfield said the problem is more prevalent in Cambodia, which neighbors Vietnam. The group usually spends three weeks in Vietnam and one week in Cambodia during these trips.
“I’ve asked students, ‘Is there anybody in the world you love enough that you’re willing to die for them?’ Newfield said. “Most raise their hands. I then ask, ‘How about living for them? As a sex worker?’”
“We were in a hospital and I overheard a conversation between two women. One talked about becoming a prostitute in order to get medication for her sick child.”
Newfield said some people become sex workers voluntarily in order to aid ailing family members. Both Neal and Susan Newfield are advisers to the Pacific Links Foundation, which conducts anti-trafficking work in Vietnam.
Sex trafficking isn’t the sole problem. While poverty rates in Vietnam have declined in recent years, they remain high in the country’s rural areas.
“Life in Ho Chi Minh City is different than life in a rural village,” Newfield said. “One of the Vietnamese students who attends our social work workshops said his family lived on a dollar a day when he was growing up. Living on a dollar a day in Vietnam is still difficult for a whole family.”
WVU students also learn about the Vietnam War by touring museums, as well as the country’s culture by visiting pagodas and Buddhist monks.
Vietnamese high school and college students travel around the country with the WVU group.
“We make sure we have Vietnamese students traveling with us so we’re not a bus of foreigners looking at the country behind glass,” Newfield added.
“We’re smitten by the Vietnamese people. They’re thirsty for knowledge. At the end of our workshops, we’ve had students cry. They say they promise to do this and promise to do that to help their country.”
For more information, contact Newfield at (304) 293-6375 or Neal.Newfield@mail.wvu.edu.
By Jake Stump
CONTACT: University Relations/News
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