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The Making of an Interdisciplinary Service-Learning Course on Climate Change in Vietnam

Tranviet's class

In 2016, I created an interdisciplinary course titled Climate Change Awareness and Service Learning in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. It became a yearlong course, covering three terms: seven weeks of instruction at Cornell in fall 2016, followed by a field trip component in Vietnam in winter 2017, and then another seven weeks at Cornell in spring 2017. 

The goal was to introduce Cornell undergraduate students to Vietnam and have them experience this Southeast nation through various lenses, the first of which was climate change. In 2016, Vietnam was hit with the worst drought in nearly one hundred years. The water in the Mekong Delta, one of the most susceptible regions to climate change in the world, was at its lowest since 1926. Known as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam due its vast rice production, the drought led to a serious reduction in rice production and other cash crops, including sugar cane, fruit trees, shrimp and seafood, among other agricultural and aquaculture products.

Every farmer was affected by the drought, and many did not recover from this catastrophe even when our group visited them one year later, during our trip in winter 2017. To people in Vietnam, climate change is a serious threat. Simply put, there are no climate change deniers in Vietnam. As an educator, I felt it was invaluable to give students an opportunity to observe firsthand the dire problems faced by eighteen million people living in the Mekong Delta. My intention was to help students gain a broad understanding of the impacts people in Vietnam face due to climate change.

Second, I wanted this course to be an experiential learning opportunity. While I was aware that a short-term, faculty-led study abroad trip would not be able to properly address the needs of the local communities, especially the sheer enormity of the problem at hand, it would still be an incredible experience if the students were able to engage with local people through meaningful service-learning activities.  

Above all, I wanted the students to get to know contemporary, post-war Vietnam. Vietnam today is a vibrant amalgamation of the old and the new. With recent rapid economic growth and development, the country is undergoing major political and social transformation, where traditions and reforms are constantly evolving and negotiating, shaping and reshaping everyday existence. It is a land with extraordinary landscapes and fascinating street life—and street food—a complex ancient and modern country to study and explore. 

With these intentions in mind, I approached Professor Michael (Mike) Hoffmann, executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, and asked him to come aboard. With Mike’s knowledge and passion in climate change education and my intimate familiarity of Vietnam and background training in service-learning, we set out to design an interdisciplinary course to give our students a unique experience, in the hopes that it would be among the most salient learning moments of their Cornell education.

The creation of the course actually began several years earlier. I had made a couple of exploratory trips to Vietnam to identify local partners and scout sites for the service-learning activities. Although we were in Vietnam for only two weeks during this course, many people were involved to make this component happen. Among the local partners were two universities, Ton Duc Thang University (TDTU) in Ho Chi Minh City, which provided logistical support, and Can Tho University (CTU), along with scientists from the Delta Research and Global Observation Network, commonly known as DRAGON. DRAGON is a research institute on climate change, and it offered our students lectures on all kinds of issues related to climate change, from biodiversity to aquaculture and rice farming, to economics and local music of the area. One CTU professor who specializes in biogas (gaseous fuel, especially methane, produced by the fermentation of organic matter) led the service-learning component, helping the group build a biogas digester at a local farmer’s house.

Other service-learning components included planting trees at a biosphere reserve; making bánh tét, the Lunar New Year rice cakes; and distributing the rice cakes to the local people in the village. The students also harvested seasonal vegetables, learned about tropical fruits (and ate them), tried their hands at (slippery) hand-fishing in muddy creeks, and made their own Vietnamese pancakes. We traveled in all types of vehicles: buses, boats, ferries, and bikes (but no motorbikes), navigating the country roads, the floating markets, and the deep waterways of the delta.

In Ho Chi Minh City, our excursions included a visit to Independence Palace, an evening show at a water puppet theater, and a view from Bitexco Skydeck, the city’s tallest building. The most poignant and somber stop was the War Remnants Museum. Some students expressed in their journals that the exhibits were eye-opening, a history lesson that they did not have in high school in America. As they internalized the destruction of war and the sorrow of loss, they gained a personalized understanding of the importance of peace. We also took a day trip near the city to visit the amazing Cu Chi tunnels and the great Cao Dai Temple in Tây Ninh. The students most enjoyed the “buddy” program, where they were paired with local Vietnamese students at various service-learning sites and field excursions. Needless to say, multiple friendships were formed, with multiple “likes” on Facebook soon to follow.  

The two weeks in Vietnam were flanked by two seven-week seminars at Cornell in the previous fall and the following spring semesters. We wanted to dedicate time in the fall to prepare the students for the winter trip. Besides the overview lectures on climate change, we organized guest lecturers from Cornell University as well as climate change experts from other universities in order to offer a more in-depth focus on the specific challenges facing the Mekong Delta. We had many orientation meetings where we discussed the trip preparations and service-learning activities with guests from the Cornell Office of Global Learning: Education Abroad and Dr. Richard Kiely from Engaged Cornell. In addition to the preparatory seven-week seminar, students were required to take VIET 1100,Elements of Vietnamese Language and Culture, to learn basic language skills, phrases, and conversational pieces, along with topics of Vietnamese culture, to acquaint them with the country, the language, and daily life in the Mekong Delta.

Returning from Vietnam, the group reconvened for the third part of the course. In the seven-week spring seminar, we discussed and reflected on the overall experience and worked on final projects. All ten students presented papers on various topics that were thoughtful and reflective of their learning journey. For example, topics explored by the students included the environmental costs of war, the costs of climate change, the environmental policy and agricultural productivity in the Mekong Delta in the face of climate change, and the changing agricultural landscape of the Mekong delta. Last but not least was the merits of service-learning in the Mekong Delta.

The primary goal of this course was for students to become more conscious of human impacts on the environment. We also hoped that the service-learning components would heighten their sense of civic engagement and social responsibility. In reflecting on the course, I feel that the overall experience helped the students not only expand their knowledge on climate change, but also deepen their worldview and empathy. Through close interactions with the local people in the communities, the students learned about the Vietnamese people and their challenges in the face of climate change as a lived experience. They also learned about the anguish of war, the value of perseverance, and the meaning of forgiveness and international friendship. I think the memories from this course will stay with them for a long time.

PostScript: Two students from the course, Marc Alessi and Jeffrey Fralick, graduated in May 2018. This fall, both will attend graduate schools: Marc in atmospheric science at Cornell and Jeff in sustainability science at Columbia University. Posting on Facebook, Jeff wrote, “My personal statement involved my trip to Vietnam—thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to travel to your beautiful country! Cám ơn, cô Thúy!”

Thúy Tranviet received her PhD in education from Cornell University with a specialization in international service-learning and community engagement. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at Cornell, where she teaches all levels of Vietnamese language courses. In addition to the local partners, friends, and colleagues in Vietnam, she would like to thank the Cornell Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies for support from an Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant as well as SEAP and The Office of Global Learning: Education Abroad for other administrative support.