Echoes of a Student’s Voice: Education in an Emerging Country

By Tracy Reimer, Central Division member and Program Director at Bethel University

This fall I had the privilege to partake on an adventure in Southeast Asia to learn more about education systems in emerging countries. To be transparent, it was the call to move further along the cultural responsiveness continuum that inspired me to pack my bags for the 17-hour plane ride. My travels exceeded my expectations for a high learning curve and resulted in stories that could fill a dinner date. The first story I want to share focuses on the voice of a fifth-grade girl in Hanoi, Vietnam. I have replayed her comments in my mind and desire for this black ink to reflect the imprint she left on my heart.Reimer1

One of our school visits was to Gateway International School (GIS) in Hanoi. The school is revered as the fastest growing school in Hanoi, almost doubling in size each year. GIS is opening a new campus in the upcoming school year with capacity for an estimated 3000 students.

A few steps into our tour at GIS, the respect and desire for the Western education model were evident. There was a large banner highlighting the importance of a liberal arts education and STEAM curriculum. A few feet further down the corridor was a display of the school’s values of excellence, integrity, respect, sharing, cooperation, and creativity and pictures of Students of the Month who represented those values.

A large portion of the school was dedicated to Kindergarten. Our guide explained that Kindergarten included children ages 18 months to 5 years. She referred to Kindergarten as daycare. My deep appreciation for early childhood education brought a rebuttal to my tongue, but I reminded myself to listen, learn, and withhold judgment.

Each elementary grade level was assigned a country and each classroom a major city in that country. Grade levels were ability grouped by students’ English proficiency. We started our tour on floor one with first grade, eventually reaching fifth grade on the third floor. Grade five was North America and the top classroom was Chicago. Three of our 13 team members were from Chicago, surely a sign that we should request to speak with the class. It was a bold request since GIS typically did not allow tours during student contact hours. Fortunately, the teacher graciously opened his doors.

Our entry ignited a buzz amongst the students, which was quickly squelched as the teacher stated, “Class. Class. Class.” To which students responded, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” followed by silence. Immediately, a student hand raised and he asked, “Why are you so tall?” I smiled. As a six foot, white female with blond hair, I stood out in Southeast Asia. Whether it was inadvertently catching the eye of someone who thought I was looking the other way or feeling the piercing burn of a stare, my physical stature was an anomaly.


The next student to speak was Jackie, who quickly became the class’s spokesperson. She asked with bewilderment, “Why did you come here?” As we attempted to explain the purpose of our visit, she interrupted, “But, why did you come here? This is a corrupt society.” Her remarks caused us to pause and ask why she said that. Jackie responded, “Like, people get kidnapped all the time.” Her accusation brought chills down my spine; I had debated running solo in the morning but my teammates warned against it in fear that I would be kidnapped. I had scoffed at their over-cautiousness.

We had time to ask the students one question. A teammate inquired, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In America, I would have been disappointed with the cliché inquiry, but in the context of a private school in a Communist country, I was eager to hear from the youngest and brightest. Jackie, without skipping a beat, responded, “I’m going to be a lawyer and sue the government for horrible education. All they have us do is memorize.”*

Jackie’s spunk, articulation, and leadership left an impression. Her remarks and demeanor were mentioned multiple times throughout the remainder of our time in Southeast Asia.

As I reflect, I wonder what happens to a bright, feisty female who harbors resentment toward the government at age 10.

If I were to make a prediction, I anticipate Jackie will become a brain drain statistic. Brain drain is the movement of skilled individuals from a less developed area to a more developed area. A country or area loses its most talented and educated workers due to a poor job market or oppressive social conditions.reimer5

I have since filtered Jackie (what Jackie stands for…she has become iconic) through my lived experience and schema. I would like to have a cup of coffee and converse over the questions that have surfaced. How do we capture the voice of underserved students in our K-12 schools? Is the population movement from greater Minnesota to suburban communities an iteration of brain drain? How do we keep well educated, diverse citizens in urban settings?

*Local Vietnamese citizens explained that the Ministry of Education and Training of Vietnam (MOET) had strict curriculum and instruction guidelines for K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions. One local claimed that specific books were required and specific pages were assigned to particular days. MOET assessments were administered.


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