Oliver Meeker ’09 has been yearning to return to Vietnam since the moment he stepped aboard a plane to leave there at the end of a semester abroad in his junior year. He’s gone back twice, via a scholarship the following summer to perfect his language skills over an eight-week period and as a visitor over winter break. Now, he will not only return, but will do so for 10 months as the recipient of a Fulbright Full Grant for Research. He will prepare for his return with an intense study course at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, for which he received a full scholarship.
“Before I went to Vietnam the first time, I expected the Vietnamese to have a negative feeling toward me as an American because of our country’s history,” says Meeker. “It was so incredibly the opposite of that – the people were welcoming, they wanted to know everything about me and were looking not at the past but into the future – and I want to play an integral role in their future success.”
His feelings toward Vietnam are similar to those of Jack Harris, professor of sociology who was his adviser for the independent study on Vietnamese leadership Meeker undertook while abroad. Professor of Sociology James Spates first inspired the curiosity in Meeker to participate in the program to Hanoi and introduced him to Harris.
“Oliver is a delight. His enthusiasm for learning, his passion for Vietnam, and his spiritedness makes working with him a real joy. We had no idea that he would take to Vietnamese language and fall in love with the country and its people,” says Harris. “This has set his course and makes the Fulbright the natural next step in his development. His project is a substantial one and will provide a good foundation for a career in Vietnam. His strong feelings and intellect will guide him to creative and meaningful work.”
Meeker describes himself as “transformed” upon his return from his first trip to Vietnam. It was the beginning not only of a new area of study, but a new lifestyle for him. He was becoming bilingual, he brought what he learned in Vietnam to life in Geneva, and he and Harris mapped out a course for him that centers very prominently on Vietnam. He has recently completed an Honors Project on Vietnamese cultural diversity which will provide further background for his upcoming Fulbright research.
As a Fulbright, Meeker will undertake research focusing on how Northerners and Southerners conceptualize a single Vietnam. He will seek to understand how a unified Vietnam is especially conceived and negotiated by its rising entrepreneurial class, and how that group, either Northern or Southern, envision the future for that rapidly developing society.
“By gaining greater knowledge of the current tensions between the people of the North and South, especially those young business leaders who are driving the economic engine, we’ll provide an unvarnished context for social and cultural policy making in Vietnam,” explains Meeker.
The research will take place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, sponsored by two affiliates, Dr. Vu Ngoc Tu, director of the International Relations Department at Vietnamese National University, Hanoi, as well as Dr. Tran Thi Phuong Phuong, University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. Each institution will provide resources for Meeker’s research.
“This is a great opportunity to turn my research into something meaningful. I expect to be able to publish a report in both Vietnamese and English that can be used to help foreigners better approach this multi-faceted society,” says Meeker. He hopes to have his work appear in such publications as Social Policy (United States), Global Social Policy Journal (Finland) and Vietnam Social Science (Vietnam).
He studied Vietnamese in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City through the Vietnamese Advanced Studies Institute (VASI), University of Berkeley, California, last summer and expects his proficiency with the language to add a valuable dimension to his abilities as a researcher. His qualitative research will rely on interviews to examine attitudes and behaviors.
“By working to get my language skills top-notch, I’ll be going in not as a traditional researcher from the outside who relies solely on a translator, but as someone who can really connect with people,” he says, noting he will be supported by a translator to ensure clarity, but will be better able to cultivate relationships and contacts with interviewees by having his own language abilities.
At Hobart, Meeker spent a semester with the Center for Global Education as a programming assistant, identifying international clubs and organizations on campus to help them publicize international events and raise awareness. He also worked as a teaching assistant for the Introduction to Sociology course and earned a number of awards, including the James Mickel Williams Prize for a his grade point average in the social sciences; the Irving Louis Horowitz Prize in Sociology, for showing the most potential to go on to graduate school in sociology; and the Alumni Association Award for exemplary leadership, enthusiastic involvement and loyalty to Hobart College. He was a member of the Hobart tennis team (and named Intercollegiate Tennis Association scholar athlete); the Chimera Honor Society and a resident of the Hobart Leadership House and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
“About one year ago, before I went to Vietnam, I considered many different paths. But today there is only one. I have never felt so at home, so connected to a culture and a society as I do in Vietnam,” says Meeker, just about ready to step aboard a plane again. When he returns nearly a year later, he plans to seek a doctoral degree in Public Policy.