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Teaching Social Work in the Land of Ho Chi Minh

SSW prof helps Vietnam train social workers

Mary Collins, Fullbright Scholar, Boston University School of Social Work, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Mary Collins, a School of Social Work professor, is spending her Fulbright Scholarship year in Vietnam, where social work is a new field. Photo by Cydney Scott

Mary Collins wanted to make a difference with her Fulbright Scholarship. She considered working in several Asian countries, but decided on Vietnam once she learned that social work was a new field there. Collins thought she could help shape a nascent profession.

So the School of Social Work professor of social welfare policy set off for Ho Chi Minh City last fall to spend the school year at Vietnam National University (VNU), the country’s largest university. She settled into an apartment a 10-minute walk from the university and learned the fine art of weaving through chaotic traffic to cross a street.

Collins also learned that social work may be new to Vietnam, but the push is on to build an army of social workers. In 2010, the Vietnamese government officially classified the job as a profession and allocated money for training social workers and creating a network of social services. That move has fueled a demand not only for social workers, but for social work faculty, which is where Collins comes in. She now teaches students and faculty in the VNU social work department and trains social workers in the field.

BU Today recently spoke with Collins by email.

BU Today: Tell us about the history of social work in Vietnam.

Collins: There was some beginning social work in South Vietnam, but after reunification in 1975, social work educational programs were closed. In the late 1980s, the country began making economic reforms, which led to the creation of a market economy. That brought benefits, especially poverty reduction, to Vietnam, but rapid industrialization has also led to new social problems.

Consequently, in the early 1990s a few university social work programs began to open. There are now about 30 to 40 bachelor’s programs in the country. I believe there is only one master’s program. Several thousand people have a BSW, but only about 40 have a MSW, which is the critical degree in social work.

What issues are social workers focusing on there?

Mostly I hear about children, street youth and orphans, people with disabilities, and people with HIV. I am starting to hear a little bit more about work with the elderly. Many problems are not yet on the radar for social work here. Domestic violence and substance abuse are two examples. I would expect that those will eventually get more attention from social work as the field develops.

What is your central goal in Vietnam?

To help develop social work education and the professional workforce. Almost all of the faculty and the community providers have no background in social work. They are very hungry for any information, such as for a social work curriculum or the role of support groups. Support groups, such as for cancer survivors or for victims of violence, are relatively unknown in Vietnam.

What has been your biggest challenge?

My Vietnamese is coming along, but I can’t discuss complex topics. Some of my Vietnamese colleagues speak English, but not well enough to discuss scholarly issues in depth. Added to that, there are few written resources in English on social work in Vietnam. So my biggest challenge is having a good understanding of the social problems and policies in Vietnam when my typical methods of learning, reading and asking questions, are so limited.

What has surprised you in your work?

Everything has surprised me! Because the U.S. higher education system is so respected here, I am perceived as an expert in many fields well beyond those in which I am expert. Frequently my colleagues here solely want to hear from me and are reluctant to engage in a scholarly exchange of ideas.

Has this experience changed how you think of social work?

Social work looks different in different countries, because it must adapt to a culture, the level of economic development, and existing social policies. But this experience raises some questions about how adaptable social work can be and still maintain its core attributes. For example, policy advocacy on behalf of the poor and other vulnerable populations is central to the profession. But in a communist country like Vietnam, that is not possible. There are no participatory processes in which social workers can advocate on behalf of our clients, certainly not like we can in the United States. Without this core element of the profession here, it raises some fundamental questions about how effective a role social workers can have in Vietnam.

Amy Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me About Life Love and Marriage, Boston Globe, Boston University
Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

7 Comments on Teaching Social Work in the Land of Ho Chi Minh

  • Sasha on 03.26.2012 at 1:43 pm

    This is amazing! I also want to work in Vietnam and I think Ms. Collins is amazing for charting new territory in her field. However, I wouldn not call Vietnam the “Land of Ho Chi Minh” out of consideration for Vietnamese-Americans. There is still a lot of emotional baggage from the Vietnam War and there are refugee families all over the U.S. that were never able to return and see Vietnam at peace, and definitely would not want Vietnam to be referred to this way. It is interesting though because Ho Chi Minh used to work in Boston before he brought Communism to his country. I just wanted to mention that because people might be offended. Good article!

  • Alvin on 03.27.2012 at 10:54 am

    Great work, Mary!!

  • Anh on 09.21.2013 at 8:36 pm

    I applaud Mary Collins’s work. Vietnam definitely needs support in expanding its education programs. You will find that they are eager to learn, and there should be more programs that also expand the Western view of how social work can be accomplished across cultures. As a Vietnamese person and a social work student, I often find that my courses do not prepare me for working with people from other cultures aside from Hispanic ones. I have frequently encountered people from Middle-Eastern, African, and Slavic cultures seeking social services support. Lastly, I also agree that it is disrespectful to refer to Vietnam as the ‘land of Ho Chi Minh’ due to the communist connotation.

  • Katie on 09.24.2013 at 4:30 pm

    I agree. the title is bothering me but I love the work Collins is doing.

  • Nam Phong Le on 08.27.2015 at 7:10 pm

    I like to follow up on this story. Anything new about her and her work, progress, and outcome?

  • bonnie Joyce Hallisey on 10.26.2015 at 9:35 pm

    Social Work in Land of Ho Chi Minh is a catchy title, but it can doom the effort as it starts. The North-South partition of Vietnam in 1954,the fall of Saigon in 1975 and subsequent communist take over, represent deep trauma to non-communist South Vietnamese. The loss of family, home and nation is obvious. Less visible, but perhaps even more damaging, is the loss of “trust in humanity.” Social work is built on trust. Let us create an untainted foundation for our profession with the Vietnamese! Terrific that Mary Collins is doing this at VNU with her Fulbright Scholarship! ~ SW w/ Vietnamese in Dorchester, MA. for 25 years.

  • Kaj Kloezeman on 10.13.2016 at 9:30 am

    I am about to do my research study in Ho Chi Minh. I am a social work student from Holland and I will be staying in Ho Chi Minh for two months. I would like to do a comparative study between social work in Holland and social work in Vietnam. Is there anyone here who has more information about this topic or some links to more articles?

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