March 16, 2016, Washington, D.C.
Good evening to all of you, and a special hello to all of the alumni of the Vietnam Education Foundation in the crowd tonight!
I am continually amazed at the number of people who have worked so hard to make VEF a success, and who have benefited from its great work. It makes me very proud to be here today and have a chance to speak with you. There are many different people that are responsible for the establishing and supporting VEF through the years. Tonight, I’d like to recognize: Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh, Minister of Science and Technology Nguyen Quan, President of Vietnam National University Hanoi Phung Xuan Nha, Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel, Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Evan Ryan, former Senator Bob Kerrey, Tommy Vallely of Harvard University, FUV President-designate Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, VEF Board, alumni, and fellows.
I am grateful that our two countries saw the importance of such an institution, and had the political will to create it.
I’ve just returned from Vietnam for meetings in Los Angeles and here in Washington. Back in Vietnam, my team is preparing for President Obama’s visit in May. Everyone here knows how historic his visit will be. It will set the course of the future of our already-strong relationship with Vietnam, and it goes to prove what my mentor and the first Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson said long ago: Nothing is impossible.
That’s not just a slogan for me. It’s not something we say just to keep our spirits up when times are tough. It’s what my team in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City know to be true because we have seen it. And let me tell you, the Vietnamese believe it too.
In every discussion I have with Vietnam’s leaders—even the tough ones – it is clear that we share an unprecedented sense of optimism. That if we think big; if we are courageous and take risks; if we truly believe in our comprehensive partnership, then nothing is impossible.
But this is not just professional for me. It’s also very personal. Vietnam has a special place in my heart. It’s where I served in 1996 as a young diplomat, sent to begin what President Clinton at that time called “a time to heal and a time to build.”
I served in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and there are many images that remain etched in my memory. But for me, what I remember most are the young people I saw every day, many of whom I came to call friends. I remember how optimistic they were about the future of their country, and how much they yearned for the United States to return to Vietnam—this time as a partner.
Vietnam’s youth wanted to start a new journey with the United States, and I am proud to see that journey well underway – most significantly symbolized by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to the Oval Office to meet President Obama.
So, even back in 1996 I saw the hope and potential in the eyes of Vietnam’s youth, but I also saw the challenges, and I knew that there was nothing inevitable about succeeding in this new journey.
We had little economic trade to speak of – less than $500 million a year. Our people-to-people ties were next to nothing, our militaries and governments knew little of each other, and trusted each other even less.
Forging trust was incredibly difficult.
But, because of the patience, persistence and courage of many in both our governments, our relationship has taken off.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, when fully implemented, will transform our economic relationship, which already sees the United States as Vietnam’s number one export destination.
Our scientists are working side-by-side on global health and climate change, and our militaries are working together on peacekeeping, maritime security and disaster response.
In 2015, nearly 19,000 Vietnamese students attended school in the United States, the most among ASEAN countries.
In short, so much has changed in Vietnam.
But one thing that has not changed is that Vietnam remains a country with a youthful spirit, filled with optimistic, intelligent, dynamic, and relentlessly hard working young people.
I meet them every day in Vietnam. Many of them are here today, and many more are proud to call themselves alumni of the VEF. And this is why the VEF has been important to me. Because at a time when our relationship was young, VEF was there to provide a crucial bridge between our countries – between Vietnam’s young people and world-class institutions here in the United States.
In the past 13 years, VEF has provided opportunities for nearly 550 students to pursue their field of study in universities across the United States. Today, there are 183 fellows in the United States pursuing degrees in engineering, biomedical sciences, computer science, agriculture, mathematics and so on.
And it’s not just Vietnamese students studying in the United States. Nearly 100 U.S. scientists from over 60 U.S. institutions have traveled to Vietnam, strengthening their own knowledge while collaborating with their Vietnamese peers.
The United States is particularly grateful to the Ministry of Science and Technology for its steadfast support to the program. The Ministry recently offered to co-fund a new program to send Vietnamese professionals to the United States for training and education opportunities.
We are committed to exploring new mechanisms to do this. One possibility is the Humphrey Fellows Program, whereby Vietnam could take advantage of the existing U.S. program infrastructure and augment the number of fellows who could participate from Vietnam through a transfer of funds.
There is precedence for this type of cooperation, and we are examining this mechanism with the Ministry of Science and Technology to see if it could work between our two countries.
So where do we go from here? How do we keep the momentum set by VEF? It’s the spirit of VEF – that focus on education, collaboration, innovation, and scientific partnership – that needs to continue. For the United States, we have and will continue to make education a top priority for the United States in Vietnam – because education – particularly scientific collaboration – can help us solve many of the world’s most challenging problems.
For Vietnam, achieving further productivity gains and developing indigenous industries that can compete internationally are important and immediate goals. To achieve them, Vietnam needs to foster a greater focus on innovation, develop a more conducive environment for entrepreneurship, and boost industry-relevant academic research. It needs critical thinkers and creators.
That’s why the Fulbright University initiative is important, and why we are investing such energy in supporting its establishment in Ho Chi Minh City. Just like VEF- it has the support of champions here in Washington on all sides, people who understand the importance of education and investing in people. FUV is a great example of the type of project we envisioned 20 years ago when we reestablished relations. Along with VEF I can’t think of better symbols of how far we how far we have come, and how far we can go.
VEF has created a unique community of alumni. This community is made up of accomplished, talented and ambitious scientists, researchers and engineers. Like the Fulbright Scholars and Students Exchange Program and others, they have a special bond with each other, and a desire to see our two countries to travel even farther on this new journey. Such an academic community should be supported, and given the opportunity to play an important role in our deepening educational ties. I want to see that alumni community develop and organize, and to find ways to continue to partner with the United States to not only support the next generation of Vietnamese students who wish to pursue scientific degrees in the United States, but to strengthen their ties with U.S. institutions here in the United States. And I want to see the VEF alumni play an active and important role in the Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City.
Together, we can find a way for the strong VEF alumni community to help educate future FUV students, and provide assistance to the many deserving students who will apply to FUV. Let’s utilize the VEF alumni community to once again play a bridge between our two countries, and ensure that our scientific communities and institutions continue to collaborate for the benefit of our two peoples. I urge all of us to find creative ways to enable the legacy and spirit of VEF drive our relations forward in the future as it did in the past.
Tonight is a night for celebration, but let’s not fail to use this time to focus on what the future could be, and how far we can go together.
Thank you again for giving me the chance to speak with you tonight.