Mansfield Center Provides Environmental Exchange For Vietnamese and Missoula Students

Maggie Vann, reporter

     Traveling around the world opens the eyes of individuals to new societies and cultures by creating a bridge to becoming a well-rounded global citizen. The Mansfield Center at the University of Montana is centered around these experiences and is, “dedicated to enhancing mutual understanding between the United States and Asia and to fostering ethical public policy and leadership.” The Mansfield Center hosts multiple all-expense-paid trips every year along with several community and student-driven programs. Among these all expense paid trips is a Vietnam-Montana Environmental Exchange funded by the US Embassy in Vietnam to honor twenty-five years of bilateral relations.

     The Mansfield Center’s mission aligns with that of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam. They both value youth exchanges and shared interests in environmental issues. This program’s initiative consists of a series of virtual meetings, along with both synchronous and asynchronous activities. Each country also plans on hosting twenty-five students, selected through a merit-based competitive application process, in the summer of 2021 or 2022.

     According to the University of Montana, the goals of the exchange are to, “celebrate shared interests between American and Vietnamese youth, develop cultural competencies, a sense of global citizenship, explore environmental issues, and define, refine and demonstrate leadership.” These priorities are as cherished as drizzling warm chocolate syrup on vanilla ice cream for Program Manager Heidi Blair, who has been passionate about environmental issues from a young age. 

Photo courtesy of umt.edu

     Blair discovered her passion for these issues during her college career at the University of Montana while studying abroad in Chile. “At the time, a powerful multinational company had proposed the construction of a series of very controversial hydroelectric dams. Learning about the negative impacts by talking with people firsthand really solidified my interest in these kinds of issues,” she explained.  

     Blair is not alone in facilitating the exchange, however. Two Missoula high school teachers have also been involved in this once in a lifetime opportunity, including Hellgate teacher Ashley Wineman. Wineman is passionate about taking students across the globe because, “it is important to expose them to the greater world beyond.” Wineman said she is most excited to “see how students navigate a different reality. One with little comforts of home, but vibrant and joyful nonetheless.” 

     The program plans to hold nine virtual meetings between Vietnamese and Missoula students from February to June. Although virtual orientation sessions in the past were held before international visitors came to Missoula, according to Blair, the pandemic has “designed and implemented a much more robust and interactive virtual programming.” 

     This new virtual programming has given “connections via Zoom with Vietnamese students and I know these relationships will flourish when the students are able to meet in person,” said Wineman. Not only do these new avenues of communication create opportunities before students travel abroad, but it also allows them to engage after the program ends.  

    Many high schoolers find themselves at parties on Friday nights or playing video games to pass the time, but not Lauren Riley and Hannah Marron. They are two of the  twenty-five students given the honor of being selected for the exchange program. Riley is a sophomore at Hellgate High School who is not only excited to “hear how people on the other side of the world are working with youth on environmental advocacy,” but is also thrilled to “learn about the Vietnamese culture and customs and see what we can do when we all come together to work on solving world issues.” 

     Marron is a junior at Big Sky High School who is also excited by the prospect of the environmental exchange. She hopes to gain international relationship skills, become aware of challenges our planet is facing, and make new friends while also conversing about global issues. Unlike many students their age, Marron and Riley are helping the community through an environmental perspective by communicating across cultures.  

     Because this trip is fully funded for students, it gives them an opportunity to engage in something that they may not have pursued in the past because of being too costly. By engaging students in relevant global issues across cultural boundaries, the Mansfield Center and US Embassy in Vietnam are changing the lives of students from all over the world, one program at a time. Students who once thought they would never be able to travel overseas due to financial constraints can now dream big with a new valor instilled through the program, allowing them to change the world one environmental issue at a time.