A Different Kind of Masterpiece

by Carol Brévart-Demm
Duong Tran '15 in Vietnam
Duong Tran '15 (above, center) works on his Lang Opportunity Scholarship project with students in Vietnam.

This summer, Lang Opportunity Scholar (LOS) Duong Tran '15, whose LOS project centers around the development of essential skills and knowledge among Vietnamese youth, spent three months as an intern at the Vietnam National Commission for UNESCO. He wished to learn more about how the Vietnamese government could collaborate with international organizations to protect and promote the culture of his country.

"It's an important part of diplomacy, and I wanted to know more about how young people can participate in the decision-making process of the government in terms of cultural diplomacy," he says. Pretty lofty aspirations for a college junior - but Tran is an unusual young man.

After a summer helping to organize diplomatic events, preparing documents for senior officials, discussing innovative solutions to tackle climate change with UNESCO representatives in Hanoi, Tran was nominated by the commission's director general to be Vietnam's sole national delegate at the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris in late October.

Joining around 500 young delegates from all over the world, Tran will discuss issues related to young people's civic engagement, including ways to improve their skills and enable them to apply their creativity and entrepreneurialism successfully. In addition, the forum will include a focus on challenges related to social inclusion and intercultural dialogue.

"I'm very excited for this opportunity," says Tran, a Chinese and economics double major. "It is a great honor to represent Vietnam and also Swarthmore College and the LOS Program."

"I intend to talk about the tremendous potential Vietnamese youth have to contribute to Vietnam's sustainable development and the importance of building their thinking, debating, and public-speaking skills as well as their knowledge of social issues," he says.

Duong Tran
"I wanted to know more about how young people can participate in the decision-making process of the government in terms of cultural diplomacy," says Duong Tran '15.

Currently in Beijing studying advanced Mandarin for a semester, Tran has life experiences that will make him an effective delegate to the Paris forum.

When asked to submit a personal essay as part of his LOS application, Tran began by describing a moment in his childhood - drawing a picture, struggling with decisions about color and the exact placement of figures and objects, while his father captured what he called "a masterpiece in progress" with his camcorder.

"Moments such as this defined my childhood," Tran says. "I often found myself immersed in the world of my imagination, yearning to explore and add value to life."

Yet Tran was a quiet child, reticent about sharing his ideas - until he received a scholarship to attend high school in Singapore. In 2008, he leapt at the opportunity to venture beyond Vietnam and his comfort zone. As an executive member of a service-learning club, he became an assistant to a Singaporean member of parliament, accompanying her to local gatherings, where he learned of people's struggles with issues such as housing, health care, and employment.           

Since then, Tran has been working on a different kind of masterpiece. Hearing about the daily hardships of the Singaporean residents ignited a spark in Tran to help underserved communities. In 2009-10, his senior year of high school, he established Project LOAVES, aimed at improving the lives of seniors and poor people in Singapore. Starting with five core members, the volunteer group grew and succeeded in providing monthly food distributions and house-cleaning services to those unable to provide for themselves.

"By creating positive changes in many people's lives through LOAVES, I learned how to effectively lead a team to reach a common goal," Tran says.

In his first year at Swarthmore, Tran joined the Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society. "My debate experience inspired me to learn more about critical-thinking, debate, and public-speaking skills and how to incorporate them into community service and social change," he says. Returning to Hanoi in summer 2012, Tran enlisted a group of friends to form Youth's View, Voice, and Vision in Society (YVS), the first youth-run group with the mission of developing among Vietnamese youth the skills he knew to be so important.

With no models to follow, building YVS wasn't easy, but that summer, Tran began by organizing a five-day program - IChallenged 2012 - for high-school and college students, which comprised four days of skills training and a conference on the fifth day, where the students showcased their public-speaking skills before a large audience.

"We - the organizing team - managed to inspire not only the participants but also 400 members of the audience to raise their voices and address social issues," he says.

The coveted Lang Opportunity Scholarship is enabling Tran to continue his work, aimed at empowering his country's youth by teaching them critical thinking, public-speaking, and debating skills, with the goal of building a powerful network of young people "with ideas, skills, and the self-confidence to discuss social issues, formulate solutions, and take actions to change society for the better," he says.