Cultural immersion and friends for life

Reflections on a semester in Vietnam

March 10th, 2022   |   SIT Study Abroad, Vietnam

By Margaret Cox
SIT Vietnam: Culture, Social Change & Development
Fall 2018

She/her/hers

I chose to study abroad with SIT Vietnam for a variety of reasons. I really wanted an experience that would be unique and different from anywhere else I have ever been. I liked that the program’s focus on culture, social change, and development was rooted in the place. I thought (and I was right) that the focus on culture would prioritize my immersion within Vietnamese culture and push me to learn more about the histories and differences in the culture.

Two U.S. students with a Vietnamese family, including three young boys, a teen and their mother
Photos courtesy of Margaret Cox.

I liked that the program’s focus on culture, social change, and development was rooted in the place.

One of my fondest experiences from my time in Vietnam was when we went hiking in Sa Pa. Those three days of hiking contrasted with our recent trip to Hanoi and allowed me to experience the deep beauty of northern Vietnam. We had three days in the "cold" (relative to the other very, very warm days), and had great conversations with the people who lived in rural Vietnam about their lives. These juxtapositions really struck me and made me fall in love even more with the diversity of Vietnam.

Another one of my fondest memories is coming home in the afternoons and spending time with my host family, playing, doing some homework, and then eating a delicious family style meal. My host brother was 7 years old and did not speak much English yet, so we would practice each other’s languages. He also would let me play soccer with him and his friends in his neighborhood.

Three adults and a baby gather around a meal set on a cloth on the floor.

...one of my fondest memories is coming home in the afternoons and spending time with my host family, playing, doing some homework, and then eating a delicious family style meal.

Something unexpected about my experience was how close I became with people on my program. I was in a small group of 12 students who were together for about three months. Many of us are incredibly different and come from very diverse backgrounds, but the time we spent together really pushed us to get to know each other on meaningful levels. The friends I made on my program are some of my friends for life.

Four young women seated on a bench, smiling toward the camera, with a verdant green countryside in the background

The friends I made on my program are some of my friends for life.

Another unexpected thing is how our academic director, Co Thanh, knows what feels like practically everyone in Vietnam and has amazing connections. She is able to reach out to people in places that can be challenging for the average person, which was such a privilege. 

My time in Vietnam did change my career path. Prior to leaving for the program, I was an elementary education major. While I was in Vietnam, I chose to explore mental health among Vietnamese college students for my ISP project. This project propelled my interest in examining mental health and systems approaches, which has led me to where I am now: getting a master's in social and nonprofit leadership.

Something fun about my semester in Vietnam is that the last month of my program was during a huge soccer tournament. During our ISP period, my friends and I would go out at night with some people from our neighborhoods to watch the games projected in the streets. After each win, there would be a parade, which was always fun. On our last night in Vietnam, Vietnam won the entire tournament and all of Ho Chi Minh was ecstatic. The energy was amazing and the unity over a single sports win was like nothing I have ever seen. It was an amazing last night, for sure.

Margaret Cox studied abroad in fall 2018 during as a student at Vanderbilt University. She is currently pursuing a master's degree at University of Pennsylvania.