Ambition is a wonderful thing but Vietnam needs an environment that permits its youngsters to thrive. David Pickus, Associate Professor of World History, People's University in Beijing
What would you do if you if you found yourself sitting around a table with eight people, all young and all intelligent, attractive and ambitious? This isn’t a joke or the start of a risqué story, and is certainly not the set up for one of those stories that complains about the youth of today, disappointed they don’t measure up to the way they used to be.
As a matter of fact, it is a true story and something that happened to me in early October of 2013. I returned to Hanoi after a year’s absence and wanted to have a conversation with some students and recent graduates. Luckily, I found a group of young English-speaking people who were not only willing to meet but were also ready to speak about a subject that I’ve discovered to be rather unpopular in Vietnam: planning for the future.
To explain, if you go around a Vietnamese city asking people to speak about their dreams it is fairly easy to get people, especially young people, to talk about how they have some hope of doing something wonderful and of reaching a fabulous position in society. If you don’t ask too many practical questions, people - and not only in Vietnam - are typically quite happy that you’ve brought up the subject of their dreams. But if you ask people how they acquired their individual dreams and what steps they are taking to realise them, they tend to end the conversation quickly. Yet this is precisely what I asked this group of Vietnamese young people, and to their credit they answered me very perceptively and well, even though the issue obviously raises anxiety. Who wants to be wrong about their hopes for the future?
Yet what they said raised some troubling issues, and I want to bring them to the attention of the public at large, since the matter goes beyond the fate of a small group. I have experience speaking to university students from different countries, and the group I met represent Vietnam very favourably. They not only speak English well, they also define their ambitions in terms of accomplishing things, not in simply getting money or status. The things these talented people want to do are vital to the future of any globalised nation. They want to start businesses, modernise the underlying systems that Vietnam uses and educate people around them about the possibilities open to them. If given sufficient opportunities they can probably succeed. The top level students in Vietnam compare well to students from any country, and their education, even with its problems, is good enough to get them started.
But the fact that they are basically ready to work on their plans brings up the central difficulty, that Vietnamese society is basically not ready for them. This is not a comment on Vietnam alone. All over the globalised world there are young people just like these. And all over the world people like this, precisely because they aspire to a great deal have to cope with a wide range of disappointments and frustrations. While Vietnamese society has made some efforts to educate people to cope with other kinds of frustrations, it does not seem to me that this group had received much information on the problems they were likely to expect. This will make it difficult for them and I want to specify some of the problems they face.
Many of them had a general notion that they would acquire needed experience through internships. Yet not only are there fewer internships in Vietnam but even in wealthier countries internships do not necessarily provide people with the experience they need. Should these students be able to find an internship, they need to be prepared to act on their own to make their experience educational, even if their specific duties do not teach them very much. In the US and some other Western countries, some organisations are starting to respond to the complaint that the internships they offer are insufficiently educational and it takes a great effort on the young person’s part to make the internship teach needed skills. In Vietnam problems will be intensified, and hence the training that teaches young people top make the most of internships - should they find them - also needs to be intensified.
Likewise, several have some notion that they would start their own businesses or make a career offering their own services. Only one squarely wanted to work for a large company, and even he hoped to work independently as a financial analyst. Naturally, it is unlikely that these young people will wind up as independent as they dream, but I do think it is a good idea to help them try. Hence, I think that more education in entrepreneurship would help them respond better to the inevitable setbacks they will encounter. I think this can be done in East Asia, as I am currently living in China and see a lot of students being educated in entrepreneurship.
Finally, as noted, they expressed aspirations to change society’s underlying attitudes in productive ways. This is something that idealistic people tend to do everywhere, but I believe that this group, as smart as they are, had little training in thinking about how societies change and the kind of time schedule it would take to educate attitudes and sensibilities. My sense is that if they had more of this training in social understanding they would be able to use their own time more effectively.
Of course, no one has to do any of this. There is a sure-fire way to teach smart young people how to cope with the problems of potential disappointment: simply teach them not to aspire. But these are impressive people and what they have to offer the future is wonderful. Moreover, they have counterparts all over Vietnam. Shutting down aspiration means shutting down talent. Helping talent is harder, but better for everyone. For this reason I think two things are urgently necessary in Vietnam.
First, more empirical studies need to be done about the current situation of university graduates. While a single conversation over dinner may produce some interesting and evocative anecdotal evidence, it is not enough to fully understand two key areas in the lives of young people today, namely the ways that they make decisions and the kind of information they rely on when they make it. Of course, conducting such studies will be difficult and time consuming, but efforts made to find patterns in the paths that Vietnamese university graduates take will pay off. If we know where these young people are actually going, we can find ways to get them to even better places.
Second, training for success needs to be expanded to address the kinds of topics raised here, particularly in respect to informing students what it means in practice to seek internships or some kind of entrepreneurial venture. In my experience, almost all Vietnamese university students are exposed to the language of Western self-help books, and a great many whole-heartedly believe what they read and hear about success being yours if you only “go for it”. But, as everyone knows, it is quite difficult to “go for” something if you do not understand the conditions and circumstances that you face. My sense if that if the young people I met had some training along the lines described here they would identify ways to pursue their individual goals more quickly and effectively.
This is because they have so much potential. It is a wonderful thing that Vietnamese parents and others have invested so much in the education of the next generation. I believe the students I met will go on to make extremely valuable contributions. With just a little more guidance the contributions will be greater, and the false paths will be shorter.