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Elation first, depression next: highs and lows of studying abroad

It is extremely quiet in the library, so Hoang Cam Giang was startled by the peal of laughter and the sound of a chair scratching on the floor. The sounds, coming from an adjacent reading room, seemed unnaturally loud. Library staff soon showed up and led a mentally disturbed person out.

For Giang, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Yenching Institute and Asia Center, that incident in the Widener library is unforgettable.

Giang says many students face psychological problem at Harvard. The demand for medical help on campus is so great that it may take as long as three months for a student to schedule an appointment with university doctors.

Among Vietnamese research students, mild depression is common. Mild means the students can overcome their negative feelings and regain balance on their own without having to consult doctors.

Experts in various Vietnamese mental health institutions have confirmed with local media that they are treating many patients who became depressed while studying abroad.

Dr. La Thi Buoi, at the Center of Educational Pschology Counselling, says the number of Vietnamese students who suffer from depression while studying abroad is very high. Her center has seen about 100 students in the past 2-3 years; and many of them have suicidal thoughts.

Psychologists and psychiatrists say the biggest cause of depression among Vietnamese research students is academic pressure. Students typically have to study very hard to bridge the distance between Vietnamese and international educational standards, different ways of thinking and working, and get no time to relax and unwind.

The situation worsens because they cannot share their problems deeply with relatives or friends, as they would in Vietnam. However, pressure abroad is compounded by pressure from home, too. In professional circles and in general, high expectations are placed on everyone who studies abroad.

Giang personally knows of four severe cases among Vietnamese research students studying in the U.S. who had to be treated clinically. Three of them have either tried to commit suicide or hurt others. One student did not make it. He didn’t like what he was pursuing even though he excelled in it and felt dissatisfied with his professor. He couldn’t share his feelings with anyone, became discouraged and depressed, and killed himself.

According to a report released recently by UNICEF and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), up to 29 percent of Vietnamese teenagers suffer from neuropsychiatric problems. Common problems are anxiety, depression, loneliness, hyperactivity and attention deficiency.

Lan Kieu, a PhD student in gender studies in Sweden, feels most psychological problems stem from individuals’ pressure on themselves. Vietnamese students blame or praise their individual selves unduly, not aware that they are fundamentally caught up in problematic social structures, she thinks.

One aspect of this is that Vietnamese people are driven by a “postcolonial desire” to imitate and become part of capitalist Western powers, Kieu said. Studying abroad, accessing Western knowledge and integrating into that system is a way to satisfy this desire. For some time now, Western knowledge has become the “the standard” and yardstick for knowledge to be judged by. Many people in Vietnam go to the extent of selling their houses to fund their children’s studies in foreign countries.

In a collection of essays titled Gan nhu la nha (Almost Home) written by 30 Vietnamese students who have studied abroad (Tre Publishing House), the aspiration is poignantly expressed.

Cao Chy, a research student in Australia, recalls her dream of soaking in pleasant sunshine and smelling apple pies, enraptured by the popular 1980s American western TV series Little House on the Prairie. She decided then that she would live in a Western country.

In recent years, more and more Vietnamese students have been packing their bags and heading abroad. According to government data, in 2017 there were around 130,000 Vietnamese studying abroad at all levels, and their top five destinations are Japan, the U.S., Australia, China and the U.K.

Vietnamese parents invest $3-4 billion every year on their children’s international education, several reports say.

Cold critical journey

Nguyen Thuy Anh studies computer science at the Macalester College in Minnesota in the U.S. She feels the local weather is depressing. “It’s cold and dark here,” she said. “There are days when I just stay in one building after another for classes without a single moment to get out for some fresh air.”

A stormy day at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Photo provided by Nguyen Thuy Anh.

A stormy day at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Photo provided by Nguyen Thuy Anh.

The winter lasts 6 months or longer in Minnesota, and Thuy Anh often has to walk to classes in snowstorms. At such times, she feels discouraged and her motivation runs out. “But somehow I keep on going, because there is no other way,” she said.

A cold weather is worsened by loneliness. Nguyen Le Huong, a former Fulbright student at New York University, said her biggest problem was loneliness and difficulty in making friends.

When she studied in Vietnam, college students took the same classes day in day out for four years, and could develop friendships easily.

In the U.S., students can freely choose diverse courses to fulfill their major requirements and are more dispersed, having less regular contact with each other to make friends.

What’s really critical

Depression aside, one of the biggest challenges that Vietnamese students face abroad is a major gap in critical thinking, which involves knowledge, attitude and habit.

Although they go to Western schools eager to learn and combine what they do with local sights, this is easier said then done, say some students.

The PhD students interviewed for this article were unanimous that writing papers highly stressful. The gap between the levels of critical thinking required in Western schools and the completely different approach adopted in Vietnam, especially in social sciences and humanities, is so great that it takes them a lot of extra effort to bridge.

For Lan Kieu, 10 years of studying for her graduate and doctorate degrees abroad have been 10 years of racing against time to “read, read and read.” Having to read so many “difficult things” in very little time is “terribly stressful”, she said.

For her, studying abroad isn’t about finding a lucrative job and a good life. It is a “sacrifice.” She has “sacrificed” her youth and time to read, reflect about reading and write, instead of taking life easy and enjoying herself.

If native students only need to read one book, foreign students like her would have to read two or three in order to hold their own. “We must be better to stand out,” Lan said.

Giang at Harvard is still dazed by the intellectual avalanche that has been crashing down on her, one year after joining. Giang is working on a thesis titled “From Eco-aesthetic to Eco-political Discourses in East Asian Socialist Countries: The Cases of Vietnamese and Chinese Commercial Cinema (2000-2018)”.

From Vietnam, where she suffered a dire shortage of theoretical resources, Giang now finds herself at the opposite extreme – where the source of materials is endless. However, most of the material applies to Western texts and contexts and there is almost no meaningful reference to East Asian literature and cinema.

“So I grope along as I read,” Giang said. “I often feel impotent, especially when I can’t understand a book’s logic. Sometimes I spend a whole week trying to figure out just two pages.”

Nguyen Anh Thu, a freshman at Clark University in Massachusetts in the U.S., has a smaller but no less challenging problem: she wants to practice speaking her mind during conversations and in class. “In Vietnam, I would sit and listen to people talk,” Anh Thu said.

“But abroad, everybody really wants to hear what I have to say.” In fact, students are often assessed on how they engage with the class and articulate their views. This is not something that happens regularly in a Vietnamese academic setting.

Given all the complexity involved in doing well abroad academically, many people feel that the ideal age to embark on an international education is after high school.

Hoa Tran thinks that in general, it’s only after 18 that people become mature enough to live independently and develop academic goals.

Nguyen Thuy Anh agrees. She said at high school age, students go through many biological and psychological changes, so they might feel lost if they lived far away from their families.

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