I met Hung when we joined a leadership summit in Bangkok together. Hung is a typical A-minus Asian, who got a full-ride scholarship to New York University, spent his college life in three different time zones without spending a cent. Hung is clearly a typical Vietnamese privileged kid: learning English since the age of 6, going to the most prestigious high school in the country, socializing with groups of highly educated people just like him and of course, getting a full scholarship to a prestigious university in the States - a happy ending after all.
We did not talk much during the summit in Bangkok. I am a normal Vietnamese living abroad, had to quit part-time jobs for 1 week to come here while he was enjoying his short business vacation by a parent-sponsored amount. We did not have much to talk because our background does not have even one small similarity. After the summit, we left to our own life with our own plans, I personally thought I would never get a chance to see him again.
One day, he sent me a message from Shanghai, told me that it was really difficult to get in touch with people because in China, the chance of getting access to VPN is such a myth. He was on his exchange program in the country where there is no existence of Facebook or Snapchat. He told me how China and America opened his eyes about the power of entrepreneurship and networking. He wanted to come back to Vietnam, our hometown, to do something that he has always wanted to do: a social project about social entrepreneurship.
He told me that he was amazed by my personal blog and wanted me to help him with the PR phase of his project. I always remember our conversation at that time.
- Why are you doing this? - I asked him.
- I want to empower some underprivileged kids in our home to know that they are capable to do something good for the society. They are as bright as some Ivy League students, what they need is just a mentor, I will provide them that.
- We are not living in the fairytail. So now you are telling me to convince a kid who is still lack of money for tuition to be a changemaker?
- I don't want them to be a changemaker or social activist. I just want them to know that they can be the change they want to see in the world. Everything has to start from themselves first, we are seeding for the future, not just educating some unknown kids.
So that's it. He won. I decided to join him. I am convinced.
Hung turned out to be not-that-privileged like I thought. He understands my struggles as a student with loans at the age of 18. He said he does not want any kid out there has to lose their dream just because of their background.
After just 2 months of planning and working til 4AM in the morning, we finally launched our first season of the program. The name of this program is “Project Incubator for Social Entrepreneur”, we call it PISE for short.
Lesson number 1: Your partner will be your least expected person. Do not miss a chance to know anyone just by being judgemental.
How we are amazed by the local authorities
FIRST, We chose Dong Thap as our first location.
Dong Thap is one of the poorest but most potential city in the Northern Vietnam. Despite its potential human resources, the city is located in one of the worst location I have ever seen: not much natural resources and almost zero big-enough communication route. People there just simply want to move on with their life by moving to the big city Saigon (the most developed city in Vietnam which is located not far away from Dong Thap) for better income. A good thing is, our targeted high school is actually not a bad school, it is the best high school in the region.
I come from the countryside and have lived there for at least half of my life until my mom decided to move me to the capital for the sake of my education. The local authorities and school principals in the countryside in Vietnam are the things that always annoy me the most. Hence, I did not expect much from the local government in Dong Thap. However, the local authorities there really amazed me. They just literally broke all the stereotypes of bureaucracy and distrust within an authority in Vietnamese society.
As said, the human resource in Dong Thap is such a potential. From the residents to local authorities, everyone is trying their best to develop their land. The local government always gives the warmest welcome to all start-ups and social projects coming to the province. At our targeted school, the principal really amazed me by the way he runs the educational system. I used to study in one of the most prestigious high school in the city, and I have to say that, the educational system here is much better and open-minded than all ‘prestigious’ high schools in the big cities.
With the limited resources that a public school can manage to have, the principals and staffs are trying to transform the school system because the current one is out-of-dated although no one asks them to do so (and obviously they will not get paid by doing that). I have read several stories about incredible people trying to bring a better education to students in rural and remote areas, but it was the first time I experienced the real ones on my own.
The school welcomed us with the warmest welcome we have ever received. They showed us how great and potential their students are, how hard they have tried to push them beyond their limit despite the very limited budget and resource.
If you used to work for NGOs then you will understand dealing with the local government is a real struggle. However, if your NGO is based in Dong Thap, your struggle will be a big zero. The local authority there will do everything they can to support you because they understand that educational NGO will bring no harm but good. The principal offered us a place to stay, discounted price for food and even told us not to worry about paperwork because “we will handle them for you, don’t worry” (said by the office lady at the administration office).
We prepared so much to deal with the document process, but it turned out to be really smooth, safe and sound. Thanks to the local authorities and our partner Start-up Vietnam Foundation - the first socialized and non-profit fund for start-ups in Vietnam, our social project was ready to spread its mission.
Lesson number 2: The support from local authorities is a huge thing. If the NGO - local government collaboration goes smoothly, the impact will be far more than expected.
Recruit the kids and run the boot camp
We planned to recruited 15 mentees, but when the deadline reached, there were only 5 applied. We expected that, so we extended the deadline for two more weeks. A member from our program went to every single class to promote about our boot camp. Finally, we finally got 15 mentees.
The school provided the dorm and discounted price for food to stay during the camp, it was the nicest thing they could manage to give us. Thanks to the school, we finally can have our first boot camp.
Some of the kids were not familiar with stuffs like "networking", "social start-up" or "liberal education". The school authority even put extracurricular activities as a small part of the GPA to encourage the kids to be more dynamic, but still. Because of the limited budget we got from the crowdfunding, we could only have a 2-day camp, which means everything must be very concrete and concise.
Hung has connected with some other university students living abroad to come to the town to be the kids' mentors, including me and other 3 Vietnamese students living in the US. As that was the first time having a "living abroad" mentor, the kids were really excited to learn more about how it is like to have a life outside the country. I remembered I almost cried when a kid asked me "How is it like to fly on the plane?"
The boot camp went smoothly and the result was really unexpected. At least half of the kids expressed that they wanted to go to college abroad, some even want to be a part of social entrepreneurship to gain a better understanding about the country’s problems. Others wanted to be a changemaker to reduce poverty and inequality, they said they want to create a better life for their children when they grow up.
When the camp ended, we all cried. This is the first time Hung and me doing something which is not for the sake of our CV. We are changing some people' lives just by the power of education.
After the camp
This year, we still continue to carry on the project, to spread our mission to other isolated towns in Vietnam.
Hung really opened my eyes by his visions and passion. If he did not step up to ask me about his project (now became our project), I my ended up getting a job in the entertainment industry, writing about showbiz scandals (my background is a journalist) for the sake of fame and money.
My point being here is, just by stepping up, Hung did not only change my life, but also those 15 mentees’ life.
The power of change makers is real.
Lesson number 3: The power of doing!
Education is really the most powerful tool to make a difference. We are just one of several NGOs dedicated for education in Vietnam.
This is the link of our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pisevn You can donate or simply share our work to empower more people to step up. Together we can create a difference.