A session of the virtual exchange. [Photo provided by Heidi Blair of the Mansfield Center.]

University of Montana Launches Environmental Exchange Program to Celebrate 25th Anniversary of US-Vietnam Relations

The Mekong ASEAN

In recognition of the 25th anniversary of normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam, the University of Montana has launched an “Exchange on Global Environmental Issues” initiative. Made possible by a $400,000 grant from the US Embassy in Vietnam, the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center selected 25 high school students from Missoula County Public Schools to participate in the program. Over the course of seven months, the student cohort will collaborate with 25 Vietnamese high school students to develop cultural sensitivity and gain a deeper understanding of shared environmental challenges between the United States and Vietnam.

Heidi Blair, a program manager at the Mansfield Center, told the East-West Center that the students are looking forward to infusing cultural education with their demonstrated interest in environmental issues.

“We’re a really rural state so there’s not a lot of opportunity for international engagement, especially at the high school level. I think students are excited to get to learn about another culture and there’s a lot of curiosity and eagerness to understand another country and way of living and thinking,” Blair said.

The program consists of three parts: engaging in a virtual exchange from January-June 2021, hosting Vietnamese students in June 2021, and traveling to Vietnam in July 2021. However, in-person activities may be delayed until summer 2022 if COVID-19 restrictions do not permit international travel.

As part of the virtual exchange, students will learn about a variety of natural resource issues from both University of Montana faculty and Vietnamese professionals, namely nature and biodiversity conservation, plastic pollution and zero waste strategies, and impacts surrounding climate change. While the program has a thematic focus on environmental issues, it also aims to broaden participants’ cultural perspectives and provide opportunities for meaningful linguistic exchange. The program will allow Montana students to experience another country and interact with English language learners, while Vietnamese students will improve their language skills through casual conversation and formal language instruction at the University of Montana’s English Language Institute.

The program is the latest Southeast Asian exchange initiative undertaken by the Mansfield Center, which has a strong track record of engaging with the region through the US Department of State’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Under this program, the University of Montana facilitates five-week fellowships in US organizations through the YSEALI Professional Fellows Program, as well as partners with the East-West Center to bring 21 Southeast Asian young leaders to Montana each semester for an Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues and Natural Resource Management.

Although the US-Vietnam environmental exchange is a one-time celebration, there is optimism for future programs in the region.

“Our vision as a center is to support globally minded leaders of integrity through programs that focus on leadership development, international engagement, ethics and public affairs.” Blair said.

Ryan Woock is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a senior in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.