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SSW Professor Draws Personal and Professional Insight from Return to Vietnam

September 19, 2012

This summer, Assistant Professor Tien Ung, M.S.W., Ph.D., was invited to present at the International Conference on Social Work and Social Policy held in Hanoi. She has taught at Simmons since 2006 and is known on campus for her passion and energy. Dr. Ung, who teaches courses on Practice, Leadership, Research Methods, and Advanced Statistics, was born in Vietnam but had not set foot on its soil since childhood.

She spoke with us briefly about her work and the insights, both professional and personal, that she gained from her trip.

Can you tell us the title of your presentation and how it fits into your research or scholarly interests?

My presentation was entitled: "Tram nghe không b0ng m0t th0y (Observation is the best teacher): Utilizing community based participatory methods to inform social work practice." 

It highlighted the ways in which academic-community partnerships and community based participatory research can be used to develop culturally responsive, evidence-based models of assessment, practice, and evaluation, as well as professional staff development.  I used cases of family violence and mental health literacy and my work with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Asian Task Force for Domestic Violence (ATASK), the Center for Community Health, Education, and Research (CCHER), and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to illustrate this point.

What is happening with the social work profession in Vietnam?

Social work in Vietnam is at its peak in terms of growth and development.  In recent years, it has received unprecedented recognition and support from the government, which has established ambitious goals to develop the social work workforce in Vietnam (training 65,000 workers and creating a network of social service providers by 2020). 

This demand, in part, results from evolving awareness among government officials about the need for services to support a growing number of Viets who live with varying disabilities, family and gender-based violence, poverty, and health and mental health problems, to name a few, and the lack of organizations and appropriately trained professionals to meet the need. 

At this time, there are about 40 B.S.W. programs throughout the country, with the first M.S.W. program established only in 2011.  In addition, the Vietnamese Association of Social Workers was also established in 2011.  Currently there are only about 40 practitioners with an M.S.W. in the entire country, and only one native Viet with a Ph.D. in social work, though a few others have Ph.D.'s in related fields (e.g., sociology, public health, community planning, etc.).  It is a very exciting time, and I was thrilled to have a chance to learn and be a part of it. I also had the great opportunity to meet with other scholar-practitioners from around the globe - from India, China, Cambodia, and New Zealand - and learn about amazing work and need in these areas as well.

What observations do you have about being in Vietnam, as it relates to how you think about or might teach about cross-cultural work or cultural sensitivity?

Many people have asked me what it was like to return to the country of my birth for the first time in 37 years.  I was three years old, nearly four, when my family and I immigrated as refugees to the United States.  The experience for me turned me inside out and was supposed to set me right side up again, though I am not sure now if I know which side is right or if I am even up! 

For example, one of the things people would ask me without fail was, "Are you Viet or are you a person who speaks Viet?" 

To a degree, I anticipated that my Western upbringing would be evident to them in ways that it may not be so evident to me, in terms of how I carried myself, groomed myself, or even how I walk and gesture.  But when I pressed people about their impressions of me, I was really surprised to hear them say that I did not look Viet to them, that my facial features were not Viet-typical. Apparently, the bridge of my nose is higher, and my nose is not as wide and flat, nor are my cheeks as flat, my cheekbones are more heightened, and my eyes are rounder!  People suggested I looked Japanese or Korean, perhaps Singaporean, or maybe Chinese, but not so much.

This came as a great surprise to me, as here in America, I feel like I have been racialized all of my life, and I have always seen and thought of myself as an Asian person with almond eyes and a round face without cheekbones and a flatter bridge, so this was really fascinating to me. I just wrote a paper with two colleagues that has been accepted for publication which analyzes the impact of ecology on the racial development of transracially adopted people, and these conversations very much reminded me of this model my colleague developed and this paper we wrote.

The experience has also really impacted my perspectives on cultural responsiveness, and especially on the role of place on the meaning, the direction, and the flow of interpersonal patterns informed by race and ethnicity, on insider and outsider; it has really deepened this discourse for me, and I am excited to share this with students in class in the fall.

A common theme that emerges in class when we talk about the dynamics of diversity and oppression is safety, and of course, associated with that is risk. Depending on who is talking, what is safe and what types of risk need to be taken in order to move towards awareness, sensitivity, and cultural responsiveness varies. Typically, this dialogue can sort itself into shared group experiences, and the work becomes nurturing the inter-group differences and dialogue.  It was really transformative for me in Vietnam to be in both of those roles simultaneously while I was within the group!  It has got me thinking so much about bi-cultural and bi-lingual work.

A couple of years ago, I gave a keynote address called "Becoming a bi-cultural worker," and while some of my  points in that address still hold, I am really eager to go back to it now with this experience in mind, and again, here, I can't wait to get in the classroom and talk with our students about it.  There are students we have, for example, who are bi-lingual but racially or ethnically unmatched with the population whose native language they can speak, and then students who may be racially and ethnically matched but don't speak the language, and then students who are not matched at all...I just can't wait to speak to them all and share these experiences, hear their insights, and learn from each other.

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