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Ashley Nguyen.

Ashley Nguyen, social work graduate student, returned to Vietnam to explore how that country deals with those in need.

Broadening hearts and minds

Social work students gain perspective in Vietnam

By Cass Erickson

June 9, 2006

A young Vietnamese girl thought she was signing up for a study abroad program in Taiwan, but when she got there, she was sold into a brothel. Her story helped motivate Ashley Nguyen, a graduate student in social work, to join an effort aimed at strengthening the poorly defined profession of social work in Vietnam. For two weeks in May, Nguyen and 24 other University of Minnesota students traveled to Vietnam to learn more about the country's social services and help their future growth. The tour was actually a class in the School of Social Work (SSW), which encourages its students to attain a global perspective by studying abroad. SSW began offering international study tours to its students in 2001 with trips to Norway, Peru, England, Ireland, and Ghana.

"They say, 'We'd be happy to take you around and show you lots of different things, but you have to promise to come back and teach,'" says Dimock.

"We hope students gain greater cultural sensitivity [in studying abroad]... and come back with some ideas about how to work more effectively with clients of a different background and culture," said Peter Dimock, teaching specialist and professional education director, who, along with professor David Hollister, accompanied the students to Vietnam. Nguyen went to Ghana last year and looked forward to visiting her homeland, Vietnam. "My experience in Ghana enhanced my personal perspective on life and my professional skills, such as having an open mind and learning the other side of the story," she said. Nguyen's research focus is human trafficking, a problem she says is rampant in Vietnam. The study tour also included visits to the Open University in Ho Chi Minh City and the University of Hanoi. Both institutions are developing social work programs, which are just beginning to catch on in Asia. "We'd like to see what they're teaching and what the curriculum is and perhaps be of assistance," said Dimock before the trip. Another objective of the trip was fostering relationships with colleagues in Vietnam that will lead to future collaboration. According to Dimock, the Vietnamese share the same hope. "They say, 'We'd be happy to take you around and show you lots of different things, but you have to promise to come back and teach.'... We're trying to spark interest and compassion [in our students] for wanting to be involved in some ongoing way [in the country] that won't stop when we get back." "We also have a very large Vietnamese population in Minnesota," Dimock said. "I can see how this experience may be an impetus for students to become more involved locally--and there are lots of ways to do that."