Scope#05 | Marubeni Educational Fund in Vietnam

Young Vietnamese Students Chase Dreams with Marubeni Scholarships

By James Simms

NINH XUAN, Vietnam – Ha Duc Thu’s mother starts her day at 3:00 AM And it doesn’t end until some 18 hours later. By the time she goes to bed, Nguyen Thi Bac may have weeded rice paddies, washed diners’ dishes, done housework and even rowed tourist boats on a nearby river.

For those living in developing countries, early mornings and late nights and difficulty in making ends meet aren’t unusual. But like parents around the world, they cherish their children’s futures and are willing to sacrifice to ensure them. 

In Vietnam, the market-oriented “Doi-Moi” economic reforms, which started in 1986, and an emphasis on education have propelled it to the lower ranks of middle-income nations, from one of the world’s poorest, and made it one of Japan’s most promising markets today. Despite those strides, the benefits to 92 million Vietnamese haven’t been felt evenly, especially in rural areas like the commune of Ninh Xuan.

And when there’s only one parent and breadwinner, it’s all the more demanding. As an infant, Thu lost his father to cancer, leaving “grief and a mountain of debt,” Mrs. Nguyen says.

“There’s a saying by Ho Chi Minh: For benefits in ten years time, plant trees; For benefits in 100 years, cultivate people. That’s why education is so important in Vietnam,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed in her two-room, cinder-block home. “I have to try my best to earn enough to support my child’s schooling. With enough education, I hope that when my son grows up that his life will be better than mine and he’ll be able to contribute to society.”

In 1994, to help promising yet underprivileged students and reward teaching excellence, Marubeni Corporation established the Marubeni Educational Fund in Vietnam with USD 730,000. Today, it’s one of the oldest foreign charity organizations in the country and has made about USD 200,000 in awards to some 8,000 students and teachers in most of Vietnam’s 63 provinces, since its inception, says Hoang Thi Phuong Hoa, who is in charge of the MACFUND at Marubeni Vietnam.

Thu is one of those students.

The scholarship helped lighten the burden on his mother and brought him closer to his dream of becoming a scientist and doctor, and for that, he is grateful, he says. The 11 year old wants to improve people’s lives, like his hero Thomas Edison did, and cure people, such as his late father. “That’s why I work very hard on math and English and have received (academic) awards,” he says, adding he wants to study in Japan because of its technological prowess.

Another scholarship recipient, Lu Ba Hien, 10, also from a single-parent household, says he wants to become an educator like his role model Trinh Ngoc Trinh and return to teach at his primary school. The award, he says, equaled a half a month’s income for his mother, who works several jobs, including in construction. Hien’s mother Nguyen Thi Hang says extra expenses like uniforms and school supplies, which aren’t covered by the school, and outside tutoring for her 16-year-old daughter and him make money very tight.

Both scholarship students have ties to Ninh Xuan Elementary School, which the MACFUND helped build in 2008; Thu, now in middle school, attended it and Hien still does.

As part of Marubeni’s 150th anniversary, the fund decided to provide help to construct a school in an economically disadvantaged region of the country. After looking at five semi-finalists from three different provinces, it chose Ninh Xuan for a USD 150,000 grant because of its high proportion of very low-income students and the safety concerns of its then school, which was built next to a massive limestone outcropping with falling rocks, says Tran Thu, vice chairman of the MACFUND’s board.

“The life here is still difficult and, when you visit the students’ houses, you can see that they are very poor,” he says. Since the new two-story school opened, including a computer room donated by the fund, Mr. Tran says that test scores, the quality of the education and the number of awards won by students and educators have increased.

That’s in line with Vietnam’s rising education levels. Indeed, it punches above its economic weight when it comes to math, science and reading test scores, despite the least per capita GDP among 47 rich and developing economies, according to the latest Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development sponsored assessment done in 2012. The country outscores wealthy nations like the U.S. and France, though falls behind South Korea and Japan. Vietnam’s achievement may in part be attributable to the Confucian emphasis on learning among students, teachers and parents – as well as stress on passing tests, aspects shared with highfliers like Korea and Japan.

Hirohide Sagara, Marubeni Vietnam’s president, says that he wants to expand the MACFUND to the few remaining provinces where it doesn’t already operate and use its activities to expand goodwill toward the company, not only among businesspersons, but also the general public, especially younger Vietnamese. “In every respect, (the MACFUND) is very important for Marubeni Vietnam,” he says, “so we’d like to continue these activities.” 

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in September 2016.