The American Pacific University in Ho Chi Minh City, established by Roger Williams University in partnership with a Vietnamese-American entrepreneur, became the first private university in Vietnam when it opened Jan. 15.
The majority of Vietnam’s population of 80 million is under the age of 25, and the educational system that can no longer keep up with demand. As a result, the communist government has begun to encourage the establishment of private educational institutions in order to “open up alternative paths to education,” said Roy Nirschel, president of Roger Williams.
APU was established with the goal of helping “acquaint people (in Vietnam) with American values and the American educational system” in hopes of providing an “antidote” to some negative perceptions about Americans abroad, Nirschel said. “The best export we have is education,” he said.
Nirschel described the opening as an effort to make the university “more global, international and diverse.”
APU, which welcomed an inaugural class of 500 students, will contribute to meeting Vietnam’s educational needs while allowing students to receive an “American-style and quality education in their own country,” he said. By providing scholarships to “those who are needy as well as deserving,” Nirschel anticipates that the university will also help narrow the divide between those who have access to educational opportunities and those who do not.
Some students who attend the university in Vietnam will later be given the chance to continue their education at the Roger Williams campus in Bristol. Students will be encouraged to come to the United States to complete their bachelor’s or master’s degrees and then to return to their own countries to help meet the large demand for educated, trained professionals and the need for a skilled workforce there, Nirschel said.
“My hope is that with our Vietnam initiative we contribute to economic prosperity and even liberty rather than to a brain drain,” he added.
Twenty-four Vietnamese students have already applied to Roger Williams’ master’s program in public administration. Four have been accepted and are arriving in the United States as early as this summer, Nirschel said.
Other graduate students will pursue programs in health administration and business management while some undergraduates will be part of an “articulation program” through which they will spend their first two years at APU and their last two at Roger Williams. “We are bringing students here and bringing education there,” Nirschel said.
APU will maintain the liberal arts core of Roger Williams University, but it will also provide the opportunity for students to study business, technology and marketing. “Our goal is to make our students technically competent and intellectually capable,” Nirschel said.
Marc Spiegel, a member of the President’s Advisory Council at Roger Williams, first brought up the plan for establishing a university in Vietnam in 2003. He told Nirschel about a friend of his who had been involved in helping Binh Thy Nguyen Tran, a successful entrepreneur and property developer, to create a U.S.-style university and provide scholarships for Vietnamese students for the last 10 years, Nirschel said.
Nirschel was immediately interested. The project coincided with his interest in expanding the global presence of Roger Williams and was similar to other projects undertaken during Nirschel’s three years at the university.
In 2002, Roger Williams became the first university to bring women from Afghanistan to the United States through its Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, a program led by Nirschel’s wife, Paula. Through this program, 15 young women arrived to study on scholarship at Roger Williams and other universities in the United States.
Roger Williams has also created partnerships with two universities in Hong Kong and has conducted faculty and student exchanges with them, Nirschel said. Recently, Roger Williams has begun collaboration with Basra University in Iraq. It provides the university with books and computer equipment and supports a Fulbright scholarship there.
Establishing a university in Vietnam posed some unique problems. One of the most formidable was that in Vietnam’s communist society, expression isn’t encouraged, Nirschel said. The Vietnamese educational system emphasizes a “reverence for educators” that often limits dialogue, he said. Students are taught to listen to a professor’s lectures, to take notes and to respond. Rarely are they prompted to question their instructors or to initiate a discussion.
“The greatest cultural adaptation we have had to make is to encourage expression,” Nirschel said.
Students seem enthusiastic about learning about U.S. culture, he said. “There is a tremendous curiosity in things American in Vietnam,” said Nirschel. “Even just sitting in a park reading a newspaper, little kids would sit next to me and tell me they wanted to practice their English.”