Visitors find career growth, community

Center for Innovation, through U.S. State Department, offers professional experience to six young fellows from Southeast Asia

Six fellows from Southeast Asia spent the month of May embedded with Grand Forks organizations and UND departments thanks to the Center for Innovation’s inaugural participation in the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. (Above) From left to right: Jennifer Albert, CVIC’s coordinated community response coordinator, Chen Fong Theng, program coordinator with a family healthcare association in Malaysia, Naw Kuy Ju Ni, sexual violence prevention coordinator in Myanmar, and Taylor Sorensen, CVIC’s New Choices coordinator, chat in CVIC’s downtown offices. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Americans are conceited, and busy in a world they think revolves around them.

That is a common perception abroad and one that at least half of six UND Center for Innovation visiting fellows from Southeast Asia shared recently. What they found in Grand Forks over the past three weeks as part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), however, could not be further from such cultural stereotypes.

“In Grand Forks, I see the community,” said Chen Fong Theng, who hails from Malaysia. “It is very strong. It is something different.”

Here, Fong Theng, along with her five peers, succumbed to a North-Dakota-nice hospitality, typified through regular host family dinners and office outings, steeped in a genuine interest in their lives and aspirations back home.

In a manner aligned with Midwestern values, that cordiality served as the springboard for what the fellows were here to achieve – soak up insights, observe best practices in their respective fields and bring them back to Southeast Asia.

The University of North Dakota Center for Innovation, hosted the six fellows in May in partnership with the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center. The latter invited UND in an effort to expand the geographic footprint of the YSEALI. “They had never before placed fellows in North Dakota and they believed UND and Grand Forks would be welcoming as well as have strong alignment for the professional learning goals of their fellows,” said Amy Whitney, director of the Center for Innovation.

Amy Whitney

The YSEALI program, sponsored by the Mansfield Center and U.S. State Department, focuses on engaging youth from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region in the topics of civil engagement, education, economic growth and sustainable development. One branch of YSEALI, the professional fellows program in which the Center for Innovation engaged, embeds promising Southeast Asian leaders in private as well as public institutions in the States to foster their skills and expand their networks.

“The Center focused on providing the fellows with professional, community and cultural experiences to expand their learning, and build their entrepreneurial interest to create social change in their home countries,” said Amy Whitney, director at the Center for Innovation. “The fellows were matched with professional hosts aligned with their work in their home country with the goal of helping them build new knowledge and turning it into an action plan that they take home and integrate into their organizations.”

The six fellows who arrived in Grand Forks in early May specialize in business entrepreneurship, sexual violence prevention, healthcare as well as environmental science. Three of them found professional hosts in different departments at the University, while the other three paired with organizations in town, including the Community Violence Intervention Center (CVIC) and Altru Health System.

New horizons

Fong Theng, program coordinator for the Penang Family Health Development Association in the Malaysian state of Penang, spent the past three weeks with CVIC. So did Naw Kuy Ju Ni, who is a sexual violence prevention coordinator with the Tearfund in Lashio, Myanmar.

At CVIC, they learned not only about violence prevention but also how various community actors could inspire change together, a proposition still foreign in their home countries.

“[They] have very good cooperation with the government,” said Ju Ni. “You can say, ‘Wow, this is so American.’ In Myanmar, the government is not much involved in that type of activity. It is only [non-profits] standing out for human rights.”

Ju Ni, who mostly works with rape survivors in Myanmar, arrived at CVIC eager to discover new methods to deter abuse and care for victims. What she found, though, spreads beyond that to encompass a focus on perpetrators too.

“I really wanted to share with them the work that we are doing and the other side of some of the work that you hear about,” said Taylor Sorensen, CVIC’s New Choices coordinator. “I work with offenders, so I wanted to give them that inside view, kind of stomping out that stigmatization behind the abusers or the people that are doing the harm and understanding that they need help as well.”

Over the last three weeks, Chen Fong Theng and Naw Kui Ju Ni immersed themselves in all aspects of CVIC’s mission. Reflecting on that experience, Fong Theng said she received more out of it than she offered in reciprocity. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Fong Theng and Ju Ni sat in two sessions with abusers, participated in meetings with clients and chatted with a myriad of CVIC stakeholders. Throughout these opportunities, they listened and watched the American way. But they also imparted the obstacles and rewards of their own work.

“They have hope and I think that this is so wonderful,” said Jennifer Albert, Coordinated Community Response coordinator at CVIC. “That hope is a reminder for us because we get stuck in our day-to-day challenges.”

It was, nonetheless, a reciprocal relationship. Fong Theng said, “For me, I feel like what I received is actually more than I gave.”

Ju Ni concurred. She has even received approval from Kara Wettersten, education professor at UND, who developed CVIC’s Friendships That Work school program, to translate and use the curriculum on healthy friendships as well as other relationship-building materials from CVIC.

“We want them to go back to their work and maybe start implementing some of the things that we are doing,” said Sorensen.

Pillars for change

Nguyen Phuong Huynh, who goes by Andy, also sought nuggets of knowledge to incorporate in her action plan, which she is to carry out in her native Vietnam. There, Nguyen splits her time between her job as trainer and project officer with Institut Europeen de Cooperation et de Development, a part-time job coaching disadvantaged students with VietSeeds, and a couple of personal projects.

In Grand Forks, Nguyen found mentors in Paul Sum and Jason Jensen, both professors at the College of Business & Public Administration, who introduced her to various regional non-profits.

“I was lucky to meet many organizations and work really closely with Paul and Jason on a daily basis,” Nguyen said. “They helped me with everything I do.”

Nguyen Phuong Huynh left Grand Forks last Friday, after a closing session at the Center for Innovation, with useful tenets to add to her professional action plan in Vietnam, where she is a business and entrepreneurship coach. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Through these interactions, the pillars of her action plan arose – effective grant proposal writing, community building and, when engaging with trainees, facilitating rather than lofty teaching.

“It is really life changing,” Nguyen said of her fellowship.

Sharing a bond

Aside from career growth over the past three weeks, many cultural experiences defined the fellows’ time here, which concluded with a farewell session at the Center last Friday.

Living together in a UND residence hall, the fellows bonded with each other as well as with their hosts, those in various professional roles as well as the local families who introduced them to small-town life.

“We had great time together,” Nguyen said.

One evening, they made pizza with a family but Ju Ni did not realize she had to bake it before chomping on it, she said with laughter. She also learned how to use a microwave and how to wave at sensor lights so they stay on in a CVIC bathroom.

Warned that there would be not rice in the U.S., Fong Theng giggled as she recalled a trip to a supermarket to snap pictures of the rice section to send home.

Nguyen reminisced about going to a church on the invitation of a host couple and feeling welcomed without any religious overbearing.

“When you are here, people are happy that you came,” she said. “They just want you to be here and share.”

Whitney said, “It was fantastic to witness what the fellows learned from their hosts; but I can say we learned as much from them. We are very interested in hosting additional fellows in the future in support of UND’s goal to foster a welcoming, inclusive, diverse campus passionate about discovery and innovation.”

From Grand Forks, the fellows headed to Washington D.C., where they are to meet with YSEALI peers, placed around the country, and recap as well as debrief their U.S. experiences before flying home.