June 18, 2012

Eco-Eco: ENVS Alumna’s Fulbright Year in Vietnam

Emily Nguyen (‘11) has spent the last year in Vietnam as a Fulbright scholar.  In this blog entry, she describes her Fulbright experience.

[Emily Nguyen (‘11) has spent the last year in Vietnam as a Fulbright scholar.  In this blog entry, she describes her Fulbright experience.]

After completing LC’s ENVS program in May of 2011, I was blessed with the opportunity to continue working in environmental research through a Fulbright research fellowship in Vietnam. Not even 3 months after donning my graduation robes and proudly turning in my senior thesis, I found myself with a one-way ticket to SE Asia, where I have lived and worked for the past ten months. During my time at L&C, LC ENVS’s interdisciplinary program allowed me to concentrate on the topics that I loved most: environmental anthropology and ecovillages. With help from an L&C SAAB grant, I studied both of these topics for my senior thesis in Ladakh, India, during which time I kept asking myself, “how can I keep doing this forever?” The answer came through an email from my former SoAn professor Deborah Heath, who convinced me to apply for a Fulbright research grant to Vietnam to continue studying ecovillages. More than seven months later, I received my acceptance letter and began preparing for yet another environmental research project abroad.

My Fulbright research in Vietnam is an evaluation of the social and ecological impacts of ecovillage developments in Vietnam. Since 1991, a Vietnamese NGO called the Institute for Ecological Economy (Eco-Eco) has set up a total of 19 ecovillages in the country’s most vulnerable rural regions. These ecovillage projects utilize an agricultural model called VACR that is comparable to permaculture. VAC/VACR stands for “vuon” (garden), “ao” (fishpond), “chuong” (livestock), and “rung” (forest). The VAC/VACR model forms a closed-loop system in which each element supports and relies on the other in order to function. These ecovillages are bioregional, meaning that the models are dependent on the micro-scale ecological, climatic and geological factors of each participating household. For example, upland areas require reforestation (“rung”) to prevent landslides and increase soil fertility; meanwhile, lowland flooded regions may require more ponds (“ao”) to decrease flood damage. These ecovillage projects are meant to improve the livelihoods of regions that face the largest social, cultural and ecological barriers to economic development.  

My host institution in Vietnam is the Institute for Economic and Development Studies (IEDS) at the National Economics University in Hanoi (NEU). However, I have received help from other organizations and individuals as well, mainly Eco-Eco and Professor Toshio Ogata from Chuo University in Tokyo. With their help, I have been able to visit ecovillages, participate in ecovillage seminars and do field research in a wide variety of regions. Doing research in Vietnam was an experience that tested my patience and flexibility. Getting permission to visit ecovillages is difficult in Vietnam, as it requires a lot of paperwork, waiting and last-minute cancellations. Additionally, Vietnam has three accents/dialects, which meant that I was constantly learning and re-learning Vietnamese in order to do fieldwork.  Nevertheless, conducting research in Vietnam was the best experience of my life, and thanks to Fulbright, I now have the networks and contacts to return for my graduate studies.

SE Asian Fulbright Conference The Fulbright community is another reason I am grateful for this experience. As one of my program leaders always says, “Once a Fulbright, always a Fulbright.” Fulbright has already served as an incredible resource for career advice and job opportunities.  Additionally, it has allowed me to meet other scholars in the SE Asia region when I travel. When I’m not doing research in the field or at NEU, I am exploring street foods, traveling the country to visit my Fulbright friends or following Lady Gaga to Bangkok. Fulbright has been the best experience of my life. I strongly encourage my fellow ENVS classmates who are passionate about research and international exchange to apply for this fellowship, as the opportunities you will gain during and after this experience are invaluable. As the applications are due in mid-October, start brainstorming now and feel free to email me (you can get my email address from Jim Proctor or Pamela Rooney) if you have any questions. 

Next up:  Thanks to Fulbright connections, I am heading to New York City where I will be working with an environmental think tank on the topics of “place” and environmental ethics.  Thank you Jim Proctor, Deborah Heath and George Austin for your help and support!