Guest Blog ~ original entry at http://christinecackles.blogspot.com/2010/03/more-of-me.html

For Marist Alumnae, Teaching in Vietnam Is a Learning Experience

By Jim Urso ’11

In August 2009, around 9,000 miles away from Marist College, two women touched ground in a foreign land. Journeying to cities in which they would each be minorities, they would find immense educational challenge and enrichment.

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Christine Rochelle ’08

Marist College alumnae Christine Rochelle ’08 and Bria Soucy ’07 spent the next three months as ESL instructors in Vietnam in the Teachers for Vietnam Program. The program was created in 2006 to help meet the growing demand for teachers among Vietnamese college students who want to attain proficiency in the English language. Instructors assist students aspiring to careers in business, trade, communications, government, tourism, and other fields that require a command of oral and written English.

In a tumultuous job market, Teachers for Vietnam offers eligible recent college graduates an opportunity to gain an unparalleled cultural perspective in an increasingly global economy. Depending on the school, students are paid between $100 and $200 a month. Food expenses are around $2 per day, making the stipend more than enough to live on since the program provides housing and transportation.

Christine taught at Can Tho University in Can Tho, Vietnam. Can Tho is a commercial city of more than 1 million people, known for its floating market, outdoor cafes, and great restaurants.

A native of Wall, NJ, Christine majored in communications with a concentration in journalism. Upon graduation, she took a job as a freelance production assistant for MTV.com. However, she found the ultra-competitive corporate culture exhausting and unfulfilling.

Around this time, she learned that Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN, would be the 2008 recipient of Marist College’s Lowell Thomas Award. Christine called Gerry McNulty, the director of Marist’s communication internship program, begging for the opportunity to attend the event.

In November 2008, Christine attended the ceremony in New York City, where the CNN correspondent advised aspiring journalists to go abroad to gain a global perspective. “I thought to myself, ‘she’s absolutely right,’ ” says Christine, who didn’t study abroad while at Marist. “When else would I get the chance to do this?”

She began looking for international programs for journalists but found many of them required participants to put up their own money. She heard about Teachers for Vietnam through a friend, applied for the position, and never looked back.

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Bria Soucy ’07

Bria Soucy taught at Dalat University in Dalat, Vietnam. Situated among the mountains and hills of Lam Dong Province, Da Lat is often called the city of eternal spring due to its temperate climate. Originally from Bristol, CT, Bria majored in art and advertising design.

For her, signing up for the experience came naturally. A seasoned traveler, Bria took advantage of two short-term abroad programs while at Marist. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” says Bria, “and the opportunity was placed right in my lap. For me, it was more of a ‘how can I not do this’ feeling.”

It was Christine who notified Bria of the open position. Not only are they bonded by Marist, but also by the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Like Christine, Bria left her job in corporate America to pursue the opportunity. She had previously worked in advertising sales for Hudson Valley Magazine and Penton Media.

Once they arrived in Vietnam, they quickly encountered glaring cultural differences, in particular the sometimes overwhelming realization that they were each one of just a handful of Caucasians in their respective host cities. These differences were extremely difficult to prepare for.

Christine says there were times when she didn’t leave her house because she didn’t want people staring and pointing at her. “It was very degrading.”

According to Christine, many of these differences centered on interpersonal interaction. She describes Vietnam as a culture in which people avoid displeasing others at all costs.

“Western cultures are very blunt and to the point,” she says. “Here, if you ask for something they will never tell you no, even if they cannot provide it for you.”

“The culture shock came on more in the second and third weeks of my stay,” says Bria. “This is when you realize your stay is more permanent, and you’re not on vacation.”

Bria characterizes Vietnam as a very patriarchal society, making it difficult for women accustomed to more balanced gender roles. As strenuous as the cultural differences were, both women describe Vietnamese culture as extremely hospitable. They say they didn’t have a problem earning respect in the classroom.

The respect was mutual. “The students are so amazing,” says Christine. “The connection is unbelievable.”

Each describes the norms for student-teacher interaction as much closer than in Western culture. Teachers can play sports with students, meet with students outside of class at restaurants, or invite them over for dinner. Students’ approaches to learning also provided a sharp contrast.

When Christine had to cancel class due to illness, her students were a little upset. Sure, they were worried about her health, but they were equally concerned about missing additional classes. “They are so eager to learn,” says Christine, “particularly about America.”

Both Christine and Bria observed that educational opportunities are far less plentiful in Vietnam. “They realize how lucky they are to be there,” says Bria. “And I realized how we’re the luckiest people on the planet.” Both still communicate with their classes via e-mail.

During the rough times, both women found solace in their respective passions. An avid writer, Christine rediscovered a love that had dwindled in the midst of corporate burnout. “There would be times when I would be sitting in a café, and people would just be staring at me, and I’d just be writing in my journal,” she says. “You don’t realize how much language is a part of your identity until it’s taken away from you.”

Bria, an aspiring photographer, escaped through a camera lens. “I would just take my camera out, go outside, and it all goes away,” she says. “You don’t have other resources to escape from it all. It was 100 percent my savior.”

The experience helped both women gain direction and personal insight for the future. Upon return, Bria was married in December and is currently living in Wyoming. After her experience in Vietnam, she’s strongly considering pursuing a master’s degree in education.

“It’s one of those experiences you appreciate more after the fact,” she says. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

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Christina Brodzky ’09

After returning, Christine took a job as a copywriter at Pasch Consulting Group, a marketing firm in New Jersey. She’s an active freelance writer and hopes to one day freelance full time.

The two women inspired another Marist graduate and Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority member to take part in Teachers for Vietnam. Christina Brodzky ’09 took Christine’s place at Can Tho University for the spring 2010 semester.

Christina too is having the experience of a lifetime. “Looking back at last year, I never pictured that I would leave everything behind to be on the other side of the world doing work completely different from what I was doing in corporate America.”