Why Constructive Criticism of the US is Not Anti-American

International parents and students are neither stupid nor gullible. Among their key concerns about study in the United States are gun violence, a broken visa system, monitoring of social media information, the uncertain status of the H-1B and OPT (Optional Practical Training) programmes and the widespread perception that the US is not as open, friendly and hospitable as it once was.

A US international education colleague recently referred to me as “anti-American” because of some of my writing about legitimate international student and parent concerns about study in the US. It is another example of a fractured body politic that has spilled over into international education, a profession whose members are supposed to be open-minded and, yes, international in their outlook.

I have been accused of many things during my decades-long career and called a few choice names, mainly because of my penchant for openly and honestly discussing hot-button issues, revealing some of the international education industry’s dirty little secrets and speaking truth to power without regard to the consequences. But this is the first time in my nearly 15 years of working as an international educator in Vietnam that anyone has assigned that odious label to me.

Constructive criticism is positive

Why do I spend some of my time writing about such important issues? Because I care, often passionately. Otherwise, I would choose the safer and more expedient ‘que será, será’ alternative of sticking my head in the sand.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a self-described refugee and Pulitzer Prize winner, sums up this sentiment in a 2018 essay he wrote for Time magazine entitled “I Love America. That’s Why I Have to Tell the Truth About It”.

Unfortunately, ignorance isn’t bliss but rather one of the world’s most critical problems. Nationalists view criticism as ‘anti-’ rather than ‘pro-’ because they believe their country is superior to all others and therefore beyond fundamental criticism.

The colleague who tagged me with the anti-American label spoke about helping parents and students “look past their current fears associated with studying in the United States”. Does that mean trivialising them or sweeping them under the rug?

In a recent announcement entitled “International Student Mobility to the US”, it was none other than the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) that cited a number of reasons for the decline in new international enrolments in the US. Of the eight listed, I’ve written about five of them. Is NACAC anti-American for addressing serious issues that its leadership and member institutions rightly perceive as barriers to international student mobility?

Looking to the mainstream media, is the September 2019 Teen Vogue article “The Trump Administration is Making Life Hell for International Students” ‘anti-American’ or an accurate depiction of reality?

It’s as if the current administration is doing everything in its power to discourage international students from studying in the US, often sending conflicting messages by speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

The busy little bureaucratic beavers in Washington DC appear to be leaving no stone unturned in their quest to put a damper on new international enrolments and even encouraging, albeit indirectly, transfers to other countries, such as Canada. This has been happening since 2017 with no end in sight.

It’s important to address these issues head-on, not to pretend they don’t exist or to trivialise them. I attempt to do this in my writing addressed to various stakeholders. My advisers routinely address Vietnamese parent and student concerns about studying in the US, as do many others. We do this in an honest, informative and reassuring manner, not with a ‘sky is falling’ approach.

Study in the US as a product

I have helped thousands of young Vietnamese study in the US and other countries in my nearly 15 years of working in the non-profit and for-profit sectors of the industry in Vietnam. If I didn’t believe in this top US service sector export, I would walk away in a heartbeat. That is the essence of integrity.

Even though I am managing director of a Vietnamese educational consulting company and even though we all have to make a living, I don’t do this work primarily for the money. I do it for the far greater intrinsic rewards of helping to transform lives and having a meaningful long-term impact on society.

While I have serious concerns about the direction in which my home country is heading, including the domestic and global impact of the current administration’s statements, proposals and policies, it is our colleagues, their institutions and the overall academic, cultural and social experience that I still believe in.

We care deeply about the students we serve, which is why my staff and I stay in touch with them to make sure they’re having a positive experience and that the institutions they are attending are meeting (or exceeding) their expectations and ‘delivering’, so to speak. There is also the pure joy of working with young people who have embarked upon a life-changing journey.

Advocacy role for study in the USA

Through thick and thin, I have been one of the strongest and most vocal advocates for study in the US in Vietnam since arriving in 2005, or so many colleagues tell me privately and publicly. I played this role as country director of the Institute of International Education (IIE)-Vietnam and have continued to do so in the private sector.

In addition to what I’ve written in English and Vietnamese, I’ve given many print and electronic media interviews over the years. (Some of the digital media outlets in which my work has appeared rank among the top 10 in Vietnam, which means their articles are read by millions of people.) I’ve also provided enormous quantities of (free) market intelligence over the years to US colleagues and those from other countries.

One colleague observed: “You’ve done so much to help Vietnamese students over the years. From your work at IIE, advising VietAbroader*, and working with Ambassador [Michael] Michalak, before the country was as well-visited as it is now, you’ve always been an honest, ethical advocate for Vietnamese students.”

He also credited me with helping “to promote the United States as a destination for Vietnamese students, and strengthening the ties between the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training and US universities”.

I share these comments not in the spirit of self-aggrandisement but as a counterpoint to the baseless charge that I am ‘anti-American’ because I am a critical thinker and an international educator who is deeply concerned about the impact of various official US statements and actions on partners there and students and parents here in Vietnam and other sending countries.

In some of my writing, such as the article “Despite Trump, US will still welcome foreign students” in University World News, I have made the point that US President Donald Trump would not be a major factor in the decision-making process of most Vietnamese students and their parents. Given that Vietnamese enrolments in the US are holding steady, my prediction has turned out to be true, to a great extent.

Unlike other countries and peoples, Trump has yet to insult the nation of Vietnam or its people. In fact, during his November 2017 visit to Vietnam, he said on two separate occasions that Vietnamese students are among the best in the world and that the country itself is “one of the great miracles of the world”, both of which were well-received by the Vietnamese.

This open letter to Vietnamese parents and students interested in study in the US received over 10,000 views the day it was published.

The US Mission Vietnam’s response in early 2017 on behalf of the US ambassador and consul general included this statement: “We appreciate your efforts to reassure Vietnamese families that the doors to US higher education remain wide open. This is an important message, and your post complements and amplifies US Mission Vietnam’s messaging on this topic.

“…We agree, as you state, that US higher education institutions ‘strive to create and maintain an inclusive, nurturing and diverse environment in which international and US students can learn, work and play together with lasting mutual benefits’. …Thanks again for your contribution to deepening people-to-people ties between Vietnam and the United States – one student at a time.”

Follow this link to see some other articles that I wrote or was quoted in, plus blog posts published from 2016 to 2019.

A look ahead

All of the current problems and frustrations notwithstanding, I retain my long-held optimism about the many tangible and intrinsic benefits of studying and living in the USA for Vietnamese students and peers from other countries. The information I share via blog posts and e-newsletters generally reinforces this overall optimism.

Viet Nam remains an outlier, a country that appears to be bucking the overall trend of gradual decline in numbers, hence the growing interest in the country as an attractive recruitment destination and the emergence of a competitive ‘buyer’s market’ for students and parents.

These are challenging times for most US educational institutions, especially at the tertiary level, which means we have to work harder than ever. My colleagues and I help significant numbers of young Vietnamese study in the US at both the secondary and post-secondary levels. I will continue to do my part as a cultural ambassador, a bridge between Viet Nam and the rest of the world, a source of up-to-date information, and a passionate advocate for study in the USA and overseas in general.

This essay first appeared in University World News.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.