Education – Making A Better World  

By Thanh T. Nguyen, Ed.D

Speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Commencement 2000


On New Year's Day of 1968, a little girl found herself lying in the mud at a river bank, waiting for the bombing to be over, so she could go home.  While waiting, she asked her father, “Why, daddy?  Why these bombings?  Why destroy the world of peace that we have?”  “Communication!” her father said, “it’s the communication.  The people on both sides did not understand each other.  That’s why this war happened.  You’re too young to understand, but someday, I hope you will be able to tell the world why.”  “But how?  How, daddy, how can I tell the world?” that little girl asked.  Her father looked deeply into her innocent eyes and said, “Education, my child.  Yes, only education can make a difference for this world.”  “Why,” she asked.  “Because education will teach people how to communicate so that they can understand each other.  You are too young to understand now, but someday you will.”  Without any hesitation, she eagerly told her father, “You know what, daddy, when I grow up, I will do anything for education.” 

            Since then she has been involved in teaching in many capacities. At the age of seventeen, after the war ended in 1975, she reopened deserted schools in her area for illiterate Vietnamese refugees who had escaped the ‘Killing Fields’ of Cambodia.  Later, as a high school teacher, she helped peasant-students who were on the verge of failing in their classes to pass the school exam.  She was able to affect the lives of many children, including invalid children, in her own war-torn homeland before she was forced to escape as a refugee, and eventually resettled in the U.S. 

            In searching for ways to connect education with communication, she found the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she could get help to answer the question she asked her father 32 years ago.    She has solidly searched for answers throughout her studies there. 

            During her years at Harvard, she learned that she did not have to be the lonely child sitting in the mud on the river bank dreaming about an end to the bombing so that someday she could tell the world how important education was.  She found many educators who have cared and are working hard to make this world better.

            That child is standing up here and speaking to you today, I would like to say thank you to the professors, friends, and international educators, whom I met, worked with, and learned from at Harvard.  I am proud to say that I am no longer that lonely child who dreamed of a chance to tell the world how important education is in making this world a beautiful place to live.  Today, I know that I can work together with other educators around the world to reach high and low, far and wide to treat each child--regardless of race, religion, skin color, or language--as the special individual he or she is, to help each child learn how to communicate with others, so that when they grow up, they can make this world a place where we can all honor peace.

            So you see, Harvard has helped make my dream come true.  Harvard challenged me to think across the many borders of nations, races, religions, and socio-economic boundaries.  Harvard challenged me to recognize the problems of prejudice and social injustice in our imperfect world.  At the same time, Harvard also challenged me, as an educator, to figure out ways to change our world, to make it a place where people can respect and cherish each others' values.  

            Harvard seems to have very high expectations for its students, yet it provided a nurturing environment for me to grow.  It would have been impossible to make my dream come true without its fellowship and financial aid package.            Since most doctoral students at the school of education have matured through many years of experience before they entered the program, many have babies while they are here.  I was moved when our program administrator ordered a diaper-changing table so that we could change our babies' diapers while working on our theses.  I found small support like this made a big difference for me and many other students.  The most important support I had was the mentoring relationship with Dr. Vito Perrone and Dr. Chuck Willie, who intellectually supported my up-and-down life as a doctoral student.  They gave me hope when I lost my hope.  They helped me dream again when I thought my dreams would never come true.

            After years of training at Harvard, I am beginning to take the art of teaching to a higher level.  I have designed courses with special attention to effectiveness and learning outcomes.  I have been particularly attentive to matters of diversity, multi-cultural classrooms, and democracy.  I can see the connection between East and West.  I can see the many possibilities that education opens up to. 

            To be the best teachers, we must have a passion for teaching, and a desire to make a difference for our next generation.  To be the best teachers, we have to see how important the teaching role is.  As the first Vietnamese woman who survived battlefields, boat journeys and refugee camps to receive the degree of Doctor of Education at Harvard, I am proud to stand here today to tell you that Harvard prepared me well.  And that I am confident and ready to embark on a journey to make a difference for this world. 


Thank you the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Thank you to my parents, my family members, and my friends.  And thank you all for being here today. 


Together, let’s make this world a better place.