One man’s vision to provide an international school experience at local rates…

In between a course of king crab tartar with a swirl of mango jelly topped with a gold leaf, a handsomely dressed couple eyes a Hoa Vu painting, heads together, quietly formulating a bidding strategy. The large painting depicting a peaceful river scene is now at USD4,000 and climbing. By the time the poached oeufs en meurette in a red wine sauce come out, the couple has secured the artwork for a cool USD6,000. “We don’t even have anywhere to put it,” they laugh. “But the kids don’t like one of the paintings we have, so we’ll swap that one out, I guess.”

The privileged of Saigon have turned out to the Chance Foundation’s Annual Charity Gala to support the city’s underprivileged children through an education initiative, the vision of Viet Kieu Jonathan Dinh. Eyes follow this stocky, straight-talking man as he works his way around the ballroom. Born in Vietnam and part of the wave of boat people, Jonathan with his mother and uncle ended up being sponsored by a group of families in Massachusetts (USA) who helped with housing and education. “If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know where I’d be right now. What would’ve happened if no one had sponsored me? I’d probably be in construction with about four kids by now. [Since then], I’ve been lucky enough in life to make my own way, but it’s been a long journey.”

Retired comfortably at 30 from the sale of a telecom company, Jonathan returned to Vietnam with the idea of starting up an education company “and making craploads of money”. However, a stint of teaching left him disenchanted. “The more I got into education, the more pissed off I was that these backpackers come here, speak English, have a one month certificate, and end up making two grand a month, easy.” His conclusion was, “I don’t need to open another business. I’m fine. But these kids aren’t. They’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of the same curriculum, going to school 12 hours a day and not learning anything and not knowing anything when they graduate.”

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Back at the charity gala, the next item up for bid is a set of Amazing Spiderman comic books drawn by Todd McFarlane. Bidding is slow, so Jonathan takes the mic and tells the story of how he camped in line for two days as a 14-year-old to buy the set. “People can take away your freedom. They can take away your food. But the one thing they can’t take away is your knowledge,” he reminds the crowd. “That’s why we’re all here tonight.” Bidding starts up again in fervor and the comics end up selling for USD1,800.

After the last macaroon has been eaten and the last glass of paired wine has been drunk, the event is declared a success. The money raised tonight will go to support Jonathan’s dream of providing low-cost, high-quality education to Vietnamese youths in the form of a pair of IEG (www.ieg.edu.vn) english schools located in District 10.

Salt of the Earth 

“Everyone educated knows that education is the only way to increase a person’s worth and a country’s value. I can come back and buy rice all day long but where is that going to lead? People see [that Vietnam has] a high literacy rate, but the truth is people can’t get educated. Or only to a glass ceiling. These people are the salt of the earth. They’re never going to leave here. What are they going to do for the rest of their lives?”

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IEG has two campuses, just around the corner from each other, one for adults and one for kids. “For adults, it’s almost too late for them,” says Jonathan. “For kids, though, it’s not too late. I wanted to create a curriculum like I had being raised in the US. So here, we tell parents that we don’t just teach English, we teach the confidence to use English.”

With that mission statement, Jonathan has set out to create an international school experience at local prices. “We’re one of only two schools in Vietnam to use projectors and multimedia in every classroom,” he says with pride. The school also limits class sizes to 12 students, has 100 percent foreign teachers with Vietnamese teaching assistants and takes kids on regular field trips to places like KizCity, Dam Sen Park and Fly Cupcake, encouraging them to interact in English. Every other Sunday, Disney Days and arts and crafts sessions are held. On certain nights, one of the classrooms becomes a movie room complete with popcorn and the latest flicks, all without subtitles. “I want to provide that experience that you or I had when our parents took us to a movie,” says Jonathan. With the help of the Chance Foundation, the school has been able to drop tuition to VND4.2m for almost five months of weekend classes, affording some of the city’s youths an educational experience ordinarily out of reach. “We might not be very pretty but we like to think of ourselves as the Nordstrom of the educational world,” he adds, referencing the upscale American department store known for its attention to customer service.

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The school, which hopes to be self-sustaining by the end of the summer, is still a work in progress. In its first year, “I lost  more money than you make,” says Jonathan candidly. And this is after another school project fell through, being co-opted by a local business partner. “I got swindled,” says Jonathan. “I didn’t know the ins and outs of the laws and they just took it all over. But being struck once didn’t deter me. It happened, and that’s fine. But I was determined to do this again.”

In a sea of for-profit language schools, finding support for a quality program charging local prices has been a struggle. “The thing is, unless a website shows children dying, bleeding or with their arms cut off, people don’t want to give money to education. But education is the key. Look at India. How did they raise themselves from zero to hero? By putting all their money into universities. Education. Education. Education. For us, the end result isn’t to send people abroad or to make them rich. It’s to better their lives or at least give them an opportunity to do so.”

Back in the “Denver” classroom, the projector is being used for karaoke. The school’s longest-running class is singing Josh Groban. “You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up… To more than I can be,” the children trill as Jonathan watches on proudly. “What man is a man who doesn’t try to make the world better?” he asks quietly.

Images by Ngoc Tran