BLUFFTON - Vo Tong Xuan is determined to see Vietnamese people with limited access to technology and a good education empower themselves with both those tools.
And, when the government finally approved the creation of a second university in the Mekong Delta - the southern portion of Vietnam most known for its rice production - Dr. Xuan turned to colleagues at tiny Bluffton College a world away for help.
“We had to determine how to provide a quality education at the lowest cost for them,” he said during a visit last week to Bluffton. “I had to try to find experts ... with good hearts.”
The experts he describes are husband and wife team Dan Wessner and Elizabeth Holdeman, both faculty members at Bluffton. Dr. Wessner, assistant professor of history and international studies, and Ms. Holdeman, director of the Lion and Lamb Peace Arts Center, lived and worked in Vietnam in the 1990s.
With an $80,000 grant from the Mennonite Central Committee, which has been working in Vietnam since 1954, the couple is collaborating with professors at An Giang University to create a new English language curriculum and a virtual classroom that will allow students in the two countries to interact.
Dr. Xuan, a noted educator and scientist who has done extensive research on sustainable agriculture, said some 45,000 high school students graduate each year in the area served by the 2-year-old An Giang University, but the university can accept only 5,000 students.
He said making English and information technology accessible to everyone in the region is vital. Dr. Xuan is president of An Gian, which is situated in southwest Vietnam near the Cambodian border.
“We produce the largest quantity of rice to feed the people and to export, but the people are very poor. They cannot have a good income with agriculture,” he said. “There are no subsidies in Vietnam because the government is still very poor.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that the rice farmers are marginalized by society. It's difficult to get good doctors, teachers, and other professionals to the region who might help bridge the gap.
Ms. Holdeman said the series of English language textbooks, which Dr. Xuan also wants to have online for public consumption, will be unlike any similar books.
“The Vietnamese recognize English is the international language and to get their needs voiced and learn how to be part of the global community, they need to have the English,” she said. “Until now, the textbooks they have teach American or English, Australian or Canadian culture, and those are not bound to international language.
“We want to address the needs of the Vietnamese in relating to the world so every chapter will address something for a country that is developing - whether that's poverty eradication, health concerns, clean water. It is going to be a textbook that will be unlike any other.”
Dr. Xuan put it this way: “When students finish this curriculum, they will not only be experts in English, but they will also know life.”
While access to personal computers is extremely limited in the Mekong, it is growing. Dr. Wessner said he's convinced the time is right for this project.
“No place in the world are things moving faster than in the developing world,” he said. “What we are setting out to do could not occur right now, but we are banking on it being able to occur a couple years from now.”
Dr. Wessner estimates it will take seven years to complete the curriculum.
The benefits for the Vietnamese seem obvious, but Dr. Wessner sees great things for Bluffton College as well. He and his wife accompanied 14 Bluffton students to Vietnam last spring where the students learned Vietnamese culture and taught English classes.
This fall, five Vietnamese students enrolled at Bluffton.
“My goal is not only to do a great job on the curriculum and use IT [information technology] to amplify what I do with my classes here, but I'd also like to see that kind of student exchange continue,” Dr. Wessner said.
Dr. Xuan said there will be immeasurable benefits to Bluffton students by the collaboration.
“I think this will broaden the vision of the American people through the students to know really another country in the developing world,” he said. “From there, they can develop the skills and expertise to help other developing countries.”