You know that feeling of just wanting to savor a bit of news for yourself? When you’d rather not shout things out to the world because the world feels noisy enough as it is? While I have posted about my travels over the past several months, I’ve generally not felt like sharing much more on social media. It’s actually a relief when you reach a point where feel you don’t have to share. It’s like you’ve quietly returned to pre-21st century life, when Christmas newsletters were a thing because there was no Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever else there is today.
So, while I may have shared hints of what’s to come, I haven’t broadcasted widely about the news of my Fulbright to Vietnam this coming spring semester. I still meet people who are surprised to hear I am going. Nor have I told many people about the grant I got with a couple of my UNC colleagues from the National Science Foundation (unrelated to the Fulbright work). Both are really very big deals, but these things always feel buried by so many other things going on in the world, and I wasn’t feeling the energy I needed to share the news.
With Vietnam, the uncertainty in global geopolitics, and the ongoing pandemic that we mostly choose to ignore, really left me feeling uncertain about whether this would actually happen. Vietnam officially reopened for foreigners this past March. I received word about my Fulbright award a few weeks later. But until I received my work visa from the Vietnamese Embassy at the end of October, I really had not let myself consider it a reality.
In a couple of days (first week of January) I’m flying to Vietnam for a five-month stint (provided I can get my visa renewed at the end of March). I’ll be working at the University of Dalat in the mountains of South Central Vietnam, about 180 miles (300 km) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). I have a teaching-focused grant, so I’ll be teaching an undergrad course on climate change, and running workshops for faculty on teaching strategy and climate data analysis, as well as workshops for women in science.
This is my second Fulbright. My last one took me to Cuenca, Ecuador in 2015 (that’s when I started this blog). After a six-month stint there, and then a trip to Antarctica in early 2019, I thought I might need a break from traveling. After Ecuador, I wasn’t sure I’d ever apply for another multi-month Fulbright. My time in Ecuador was truly amazing and life-altering. But it felt like a long time to be away from the people I love, my friends, family, colleagues, students, and of course, my cats.
Then 2020 happened. And I found that even though I was home all the time, way more than six months passed without seeing my friends or family, or doing the things I love in my hometown. Some of the things I used to love to do I still don’t do (I’m one of those people who still doesn’t feel comfortable dining indoors, or going to a movie theatre, or walking through a crowded indoor space without a mask). I started to get the itch to travel again in early 2021, but traveling was still a challenge as many countries were still closed and there were some really stringent COVID testing requirements. But it gave me time to start thinking about what I wanted from my next sabbatical.
I think there’s something deep inside me that launches me forward through big changes or transitions roughly every four years. At least, that’s been the pattern more recently. Maybe it’s the part of me that’s addicted to learning, growing, evolving into the person I’ve always been meant to become.
That’s what aging feels like: if you’re lucky, you just become more and more of your ‘true’ self each year. Each year, your actions, your work, your choices become more aligned with your soul.
I knew I wanted to live somewhere else again for a few months. I wanted to work with people with a very different perspective on life and on communicating climate change. I considered central or South America – I thought long about Ecuador. I feel so comfortable there now with the culture, the language, and I long to go back. But that’s how I knew I needed to look elsewhere. I needed to go somewhere that would push me out of that comfort zone. I’ve never been to Asia.
I connected with a professors in a science department at the University of Dalat, and submitted my application for the Fulbright in September 2021, hoping the world would look a bit closer to normal in 2022.
Like Ecuador, Vietnam is a tropical country that is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The country in recent years has experienced increases in temperature in a place that is already quite warm, as well as increases in the frequency of floods and tropical storms. Air pollution from across Southeast Asia flows directly into Vietnam at certain times of the year, and so the country is impacted by that. As I was with Ecuador, I’m especially interested in climate change impacts in tropical mountains, especially in major agricultural centers. What happens to our ability to produce food or have clean water when things warm up? When the frequency of rainfall becomes unpredictable?
The city of Dalat is located in the mountains at an elevation of 1500 m (about 5000 ft – so the elevation will feel much like home!) The city is surrounded by pine forests and has a very temperate climate, with daily high temperatures in the mid-70’s and lows in the mid-50’s.
There are many people – especially from my parents’ generation – who envision Vietnam as a war-torn country. Or, who can only imagine the country through the lens of what they experienced nearly 50 years ago. Those of us who are a bit younger don’t remember the war. But our minds were filled with visions of it from movies they made about it in the 1980’s.
But I hope that over the coming months I can fill your head with a new vision of Vietnam. The fact that this country is emerging in the world as an economic powerhouse, thanks to free-market reforms in the mid-1980’s, is intriguing. I’m also really curious to know how people view climate change in this country. Do they see it as an imminent threat? Or does is it something that they try not to think about, as seems to be the case in so many places?
More to come, as I plan to share here what I learn over the coming months!
And, yes – the NSF grant!
This was a bit of surprise. NSF grants are really hard to come by. But last spring, I teamed up with my friends and colleagues, Drs. Chelsie Romulo and Sharon Bywater-Reyes at UNC to basically dream up a new world. Really, we wanted to set up collaborations between the university and the local community to address climate change challenges in Northern Colorado. So we came up with a plan and sent in a proposal. The fact that it was funded on the first try was what really suprised us. This is really new work for me: building learning communities (or learning ecosystems, to use the fashionable term) to build community climate resilience and help prepare UNC students to do this type of work when they graduate.
As someone whose primary work has been technical science, this takes me into shaky, new, territory – work that delves into the social side of climate change, basically. But I’m fortunate to have some really great collaborators to learn from, and I honestly believe we can have more impact in the world doing this work right now than trying to do more scientific research. We know what we need to know when it comes to the science of climate change. It’s more critical than ever that we actually do something with it now.
The work will officially start when I return from Vietnam in the summer, but we are in the planning phase right now.
Happy New Year!
Wherever you are, however you find yourself at the start of this new year, I wish you peace and good health. We’ve all been through a lot in the past few years, and I hope that whatever you do, you can keep your spirits up. We each have the potential to make the world a better place. Sometimes that’s hard to see through the din of daily news. I think it helps to narrow your focus on your immediate circle of influence – the people and places that mean the most to you – and turn the news off entirely from time to time.