More Than Child's Play

More Than Child’s Play

By Julie Ginsberg

Pandemonium broke out at Hoi Tu Thien orphanage, and a sea of frenzied, giggling children took control.

In the thick of it was Dan White, a 2004 UT Knoxville philosophy graduate living in Can Tho, Vietnam. He grinned as he surveyed the familiar scene before him on that humid April evening.

The moment to himself quickly passed, as a sweat-slick boy bounded over for a high-five and a tiny Khmer girl solemnly handed him a crayon drawing.

White had spent hours preparing for this monthly game night, printing instructions for the volunteers, wrapping prizes for the scavenger hunt, and planning games to encourage the children to practice their English language skills. As usual, the evening’s activities had dissolved into semi-organized havoc, with White, calm and smiling, at the eye of the storm.

The Johnson City, Tennessee, native came to feel at home in Hoi Tu Thien’s cheerful chaos during the 2 years he spent living in the Mekong Delta city, teaching English at Can Tho University on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship. Though White returned to the U.S. 9 months ago to enroll in a baccalaureate program in preparation for medical school, his presence is still felt in the orphanage as the education program he launched there continues to flourish.

The children remember him well—he was a fixture in their lives for nearly 2 years, a blue-eyed playmate who spoke funny, accented Vietnamese and was the perpetual loser at Simon Says. White’s legacy is kept alive, however, by those who understand the magnitude of his contribution—the university students who pioneered his student-teaching program at the orphanage in the fall of 2006.

White wanted to counteract problems he noticed while teaching at the university and volunteering at the orphanage, problems like a shortage of cash and real-world education among the university students and a weakness in English and computing skills among the disadvantaged children.

“None of the kids could say anything in English. That’s not the only way they’re going to become economically viable in the workforce, but I thought this was a way I could give them something, a leg up against the competition,” White says.

Most of the 30 children ages 6 to 17 at Hoi Tu Thien have lost one or both parents, while others’ parents—generally farmers or day laborers in surrounding provinces in the delta—are unable to provide sufficient financial support.

In the project’s first phase, four university students were trained as teachers for the rambunctious lot and then tossed in the classroom to sink or swim. The concept proved both effective and efficient. With a $5,000 grant from Princeton-in-Asia’s Carrie Gordon Fellowship, White budgeted funds for a computer lab and 22 hours of classes per week for the first 2 years.

Moreover, the program can serve as a model, as demonstrated this year when White and his team replicated it at Buu Tri Pagoda, a Buddhist temple that takes in disadvantaged children in Can Tho. That work was funded by VietHope, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that offers scholarships to Vietnamese university students.

“It’s a humble project, and I think it derives a lot of strength from that humility,” says Jack Thirolf, who became the in-country project coordinator last June after White returned to the U.S. “You don’t need a huge grant. You just need a little money and committed people and to lead them well.”

White found such commitment in the project manager and four student teachers he selected from among 30 applicants. Over the course of the program’s first year, White watched the university students “become more mature, more professional, more competent adults,” capable of controlling a classroom full of boisterous children or setting up a bank account and arranging a transfer of overseas grant funds.

“When [White] asked me to go to the bank to do the paperwork, I was really nervous, but I did it,” says project manager Nguyen Thi Thanh Thao, a fourth-year English major who handles the daily upkeep and accounting for the program. “What he gives me is not just a job but an environment to be trained, to improve.”

White remembers when Ho Quoc Minh, a third-year student in the English and computer programming departments, had first begun teaching and confessed, “These kids are crazy; I don’t know what to do with them.”

Near the end of the year, White watched Minh administer a test to the children and recognized how comfortable he had become in the classroom.

“He was trying to get everyone together and calm them down and explain the test to them, and at that point he didn’t seem awkward or unsure of himself,” White says. “That was a moment when I realized that he had come around and grown as a teacher and as a person through this.”

If you ask White, the program’s success is a product of the student teachers “stepping up to the job.” But the teachers would tell you that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity or the confidence to do so if it weren’t for White himself.

“Dan’s not the rah-rah type, but I think he inspires them with his leadership,” Thirolf says. “He’s not doing this for the photo op or attention; he’s doing it because he’s really committed to these kids. I think that’s inspiring.”

White has been able to guide and motivate effectively, Thirolf s ays, because of his aptitude for handling nitty-gritty logistics with “down-to-earth compassion”—a rare quality that Thirolf himself seeks to emulate as he attempts to fill White’s shoes.
With White in the U.S., Thao and Thirolf have taken over the bulk of day-to-day management, keeping in touch with White by e-mail.

After applying to medical school, White plans to return to Vietnam for his internship and once again take the helm of his project. In the meantime, his presence lingers in Can Tho, in chaotic classrooms where young teachers are gradually learning to inspire.

Julie Ginsberg, a 2006 Princeton University graduate, is preparing to become reacquainted with America after spending 2 years living in Hanoi, Vietnam. She currently works as an editor at Viet Nam News, the national English-language daily.