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Spreading the Benefits of Literacy and Education

  • News Image
    This photo taken by English professor Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton on a previous trip to North Vietnam shows a Hmong girl leading tourists on a trek to a local village for a homestay. Piedmont-Marton spends part of her summers helping Hmong girls in the town of Sapa learn English so they can qualify for better jobs such as those in the tourist industry.
  • News Image
    Students from the school in Sapa are shown drawing pictures of the valley in which their town is nestled.

Student, professor planning summer trip to teach at a school in northern Vietnam

Editor’s note: Paige Duggins had to withdraw from this trip at the last minute. She hopes to make it in 2014.

Nestled in the mountains of northern Vietnam lies a small school in a market town called Sapa. This school was founded to teach girls who are members of the minority Hmong population English and Vietnamese so that they can find better job opportunities in their tourist town.

This summer, Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, associate professor of English, and student Paige Duggins will travel to Sapa to work at the school for 10 days teaching English language classes and assisting in planning and organizing for the school.

“Sapa O’Chau is an organization founded by a young Hmong woman who took it on herself to start English classes in the evenings for all the women working in the tourist trade,” Piedmont-Marton said. “If they have better English, they qualify for better jobs.”

Piedmont-Marton said they also offer Vietnamese classes because a lot of the Hmong people don’t speak or read Vietnamese, which is the official language of instruction in all the schools.

“It’s really hard to take ownership of your own economic life and citizenship if you can’t read a contract, a map or a menu,” Piedmont-Marton said. “If they can read, they’re much less likely to be exploited.”

Duggins’ double major in English and education led Piedmont-Marton to put her in charge of the educational aspect of their visit.

“I haven’t quite outlined the specifics of the project, but I envision doing a review of the curriculum they are using, making observations about the learning and living environment, and looking at teaching methodologies employed by teachers in this region,” Duggins said. “I also will be reflecting on how the Vietnam War impacted this culture and questioning how it, likewise, shaped our perception of the country in postwar years.”

Piedmont-Marton said she will play more of an administrative role. “I’m more useful to my friend Shu (the founder and director) helping her with strategic planning and communications, but I’ll work in the school, too,” Piedmont-Marton said. “I’m interested in how the policy and practice of literacy works itself out in a minority population in a developing country. It’s fascinating to see those borderlands in literacy and education.”

Last fall, Piedmont-Marton offered a class on Vietnam War literature, which Duggins participated in. After their time in Sapa, the two plan to travel around the country visiting prominent sites associated with the war.

“There are so many things to be excited about, and taking Professor Piedmont-Marton’s Vietnam War Literature course last fall just increased my excitement,” Duggins said. “Through the books we read, I began to see the country and people of Vietnam differently than I had imagined throughout my adolescence. I am most excited about being in the school and getting to know the teachers and students. I am also very excited about traveling this beautiful country to see the different war memorials and landscapes. And although I’m a little afraid, I also am excited to try new food!”

Piedmont-Marton has travelled to Vietnam and the school multiple times, but this is her first time taking a student with her. She credits her involvement with Southwestern’s Paideia program with being the catalyst for her own involvement in the project – and the idea to have a student join her.

‘Being tuned into literacy activism and social justice and civic engagement, I started thinking that this is something students should do,” she said. “We talk about seeing the world through other people’s eyes; this is about as edge-of-the-earth as you can get. I want students not to exoticize that, but to see how they can put thoughts into action and bring their education into an active engagement with the world.”

Upon their return, Duggins will prepare a presentation of her findings and experiences in Vietnam. She hopes to have this work published. Piedmont-Marton is currently writing a book about all her experiences in Vietnam and plans to add a chapter to the book about this trip.

“I always told myself that when I studied abroad I would go someplace that I would likely never have an opportunity to go again,” Duggins said. “When I heard that Professor Piedmont-Marton was planning on taking a group of students to Vietnam, I committed to it the minute she mentioned it – I knew it would be an opportunity of a lifetime. I can’t wait to immerse myself in this fascinating culture and learn more about our complicated relationship with the country.”

−Devin Corbitt