This is the third entry of a four-part series of Sarus stories written by Madeleine Chaisson, MA Candidate from the Clinton School of Public Service. She spent the last three months interviewing 45 Sarus alumni, staff, and board members and recording their stories. This second story is with Phan Uyen Nghi (Sarus Exchange Program 2011 & Former Board Member of Sarus USA).
Nghi and I were able to meet on my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. She gave me directions to a cafe near her office and I was excited about the opportunity to continue exploring the city, and to maybe even be in a part of town where people were surprised to see me. We sat and had a nice conversation about her time as a Sarus participant, her tenure on staff, and her current work teaching English to students and informally teaching Vietnamese to friends. Her nuanced understanding of both languages provided fascinating insight into cultural differences and patterns of self-expression. At the beginning of her Sarus journey, she was still honing her English skills. She cited Sarus as one opportunity to learn vocabulary relevant to her interest in peace building and conflict resolution.
One day, the English teacher at Nghi’s university gave a small presentation about Sarus and encouraged the class to apply for the flagship year of the program. The teacher was a part of Princeton-in-Asia and had served at the same university as Wesley Hedden, a Sarus founder. Funnily enough, Nghi missed class that day. Her friends told her about the program and the rest is history.
Nghi was eager to travel to another country and explore life outside of Vietnam. She made a conscious effort to compare her experience as a foreigner in another country to the way she saw foreigners interacting with her own culture in Vietnam. After working through the (at the time) 12 pages of application, she met for an interview, and was accepted into the program’s first generation.
Her experiences in 2011 during the Sarus Exchange Program taught her to listen without judgement, and to be at peace with not responding to everything that was said. She says, “it was more about empathizing and feeling heard and listened to” in circle meetings and through the exchange. Having enjoyed her first year so much, she spent 6 months as a program assistant and then worked as the Program Coordinator for the 2012 iteration. Nghi talked about the differences in responsibility, having fun versus planning the fun. She said that through both participating and working with the program she was able to fully appreciate the values of Sarus. Her time as a staff member taught her to problem solve, learn how to navigate systems of power, and create a collaborative learning environment.
Nghi says that her current work with PASS as the Peer Assisted Learning Coordinator at MIT Australian University is influenced by Sarus. During her time at university, she was involved in volunteer work which lead to hands-on working experience through programs such as Sarus, which have awakened her desire to continue to contribute to her local community. Working with Sarus showed that she has the ability to give to her community and strengthened her skillset to continue in the same field. Her work in education places her in the social sector, just where she likes to be.