By Song My Hoang
On Wednesday, Jan. 8, Rachael Carson ‘10, a third generation Minerva Fellow, led a discussion on the experiences that steered her towards working in Vietnam. She is one of the few Minerva Fellows who has returned to the host country after completion of the program.
The Minerva Fellowship is a scholarship program that allows new Union graduates to devote nine months working with a social entrepreneurial organization in a developing country.
Carson graduated with a degree in Chinese, East Asian Studies and Sociology. She admitted that she did not study any courses relevant to what she pursued for the Minerva Fellows program.
“Many people criticize a liberal arts education because they think we do not graduate with any concrete skills. In some ways it is true, but in many ways it is wrong. We learn how to think and learn how to analyze problems,” she said.
Coming to Union, she knew she wanted to learn Chinese as a new language. This led her to take an anthropology class that studied the HIV/AIDS epidemic in southwestern China.
She went on a term abroad in Shanghai and continued with another term abroad in Beijing as part of the Independent Study Abroad Program.
Carson observed that there were many African students in her classes and learned that the college she attended provided scholarships for African students.
“I wondered, what’s going on here? I eventually learned that China was in the process of building a relationship with Africa,” she stated.
This set the foundation for her senior thesis research, which looked at the role of China in Africa, specifically comparing Western and Chinese aid in Africa.
She recognized that the Western model of aid, consisting mostly of NGOs and charities, was not sustainable and had very little impact in Africa.
Carson said, “I knew that there had to be a better solution, which is why I turned to the Chinese model of aid.” She examined how the Chinese government approached Africa as a business partner.
The government exchanged its infrastructure in return for Africa’s resources. “With infrastructure comes roads, which enable people to have access to different markets and buy better food to feed their children,” she explained.
Carson developed an interest in global trade, economic development and using business principles to tackle international development.
As a Minerva Fellow, Carson worked for Friends of Hue, an organization that is dedicated to providing economic self-sufficiency, health care, education and emergency relief for victims of natural disasters in Thua Thien Hue, which is located in Central Vietnam.
She joined the team that was running a pilot project for a new economic concept. Her goal was to look for small businesses that required investment in new machinery. The businesses would pay back through charitable goods to the community.
They first invested in a carpentry business where the owner constructed pagoda wood art. He eventually donated a door to his neighbors and trained more people in his community to perform his craft.
She stayed in Hue for two years after completing the Minerva Fellowship.
“When you live in a developing country, you are giving as well as learning. I came back to Vietnam because I felt that I can give much more after gaining additional experience,” she stated.
She currently works for Fashion4Freedom, a social enterprise whose aim is to work with impoverished and disenfranchised people to help refashion their traditional textiles for global consumption.
She has helped coordinate the development and production of Fashion4Freedom’s Dragon Shoe Collection. The Dragon Shoes are handcrafted shoes with wedges made from wood carved by artisans.
Fashion4Freedom wanted to reinvent a traditional concept while still keeping with the Vietnamese heritage. “The art is no longer limited to the village, but can be spread around the world,” Carson commented.
One of her most memorable experiences in Vietnam was sitting at a coffee place located on a sidewalk every morning. She would sit on a little plastic stool and drink Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.
Carson concluded, “At Union, you may take courses that don’t have a clear trajectory, but you have to follow your intuition. Do what fascinates you. That’s what I did and now it makes sense.”