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Journalist writes her way to success

Update: July, 06/2014 - 18:46
Press talk: Dao Thu Hien (right) and two other journalists share their experiences in international reporting. — Photo
by Phung Nguyen

She graduated from two prestigious universities in the US - Columbia and Harvard - and worked for two leading international news agencies - Associated Press (AP) and Bloomberg. Hearing about Dao Thu Hien, one wonders how a girl who looks so fragile could achieve so much at such a young age.

And if that is not enough, she also worked for many years in the office of the mayor of New York, and was responsible for allocating US$60 billion of investment funds to the city every year. Yet, she decided to give it all up and return to Viet Nam.

Chasing her dreams

Sipping iced tea in a small shop on a pavement was the most enchanting thing in Ha Noi for Hien. Enjoying the taste of cool tea, Hien told me about her experiences. Seeing her fragile appearance, no one will believe that she has roamed throughout Viet Nam, the US, Canada and Ivory Coast in West Africa, as a reporter. Hien's interesting story is like an adventure and helped me forget the heat of a summer afternoon in June.

I remembered an old phrase, "A girl should be resigned to her fate", but that does not hold true for Hien. One found hidden under that skinny body, an intrepid calm, a steely resolve and the enthusiasm of a girl who wants to learn, explore and always create new challenges and new opportunities, for herself.

Being smart, Hien conquered these challenges with her knowledge and experiences accumulated in every job she had. During her 15 years, travelling to so many countries, Hien also completed two masters degrees from Harvard and Columbia.

Hien said that the feeling of sitting in a familiar corner and watching the flow of people reminded her of her student days when she hunted for foreigners on whom she could practice her English!

In those days, very few people studied English because studying Russian was in vogue. Hien passed the entrance exam to the English faculty of the University of Languages and International Studies at Viet Nam National University, a better choice than many others.

After she graduated from the university, Hien came across a notice of enrolment to the Viet Nam News newspaper. She registered for the position without even thinking how the work of a journalist would be.

After three months as a probationer with the newspaper, Hien was hired by AP news agency of the US as a press assistant. Around that time, the US ended its embargo to Viet Nam, and it was like a door opening for the country. The economic and cultural integration between the two countries, which used to be on either side of the frontline, was active and exciting.

As a new graduate student, Hien dived headlong into the situation. She wrote an article on casinos in Do Son Town in the northern port city of Hai Phong, went to the central province of Quang Ngai to write about a refinery project, and then trudged around HCM City interviewing HIV-infected drug users.

Stepping into a lot of areas in Viet Nam and seeing her colleagues at AP work in so many countries around the world, Hien dreamt of becoming an international reporter. An American colleague told her that if she wanted to become an international reporter, she should study journalism at the famous Columbia University in the US. She submitted her application late, but convinced the school to accept her document and give her a scholarship.

After graduating from Columbia University with a master's degree in journalism, the first Vietnamese to do so since 1975, Hien was eager to work in "hot spots" and travelled to Ivory Coast in West Africa. Here she worked as a freelance reporter for different news agencies, writing about economics and society.

After a year of working in Ivory Coast, Hien joined Bloomberg, a leading financial news agency of the US and kept track of the five largest Canadian banks. Being an international correspondent, Hien's talent was increasingly being recognised at Bloomberg News, and one would think that she was in a comfortable place, even as she chased her dream.

But day in and day out, writing about issues related to state management and policies, the young girl desired to learn more and take up new challenges. So Hien chose a new road for herself. She began writing about public policy.

Hien said that during her time as a reporter, she had met great statesmen, talented strategic planners, and wrote a number of stories about economic and social policies. While instinct and professional regulations did not allow her to judge or be a part of the issues she wrote about, she realised that she could not even make use of her knowledge and write on policies that affected people's lives.

"That's like you have knowledge, experience and political opinions, but your hands and feet are tied, and you cannot do anything," Hien said. So she decided to do something to change that. She applied to Harvard University.

GPA was encouraged by professors and staff for enrolment in the United States, Hien said. Professor Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, and his wife, Anya Schiffrin, a Columbia University professor, also wanted to accompany Hien on her "golden path". Stanley Vukmer, former executive director of Indochina Capital, accepted the offer to be an adviser at Hien's centre, Hien added.

The university opened its doors to her and Harvard's famous Kennedy School was the place where Hien learned so much about policy-making. The experiences of many years of working as a journalist also helped Hien to have a strategic view when she decided to write about public policy.

The first project in which Hien participated at the university was helping the mayor of Somerville City in Massachusetts State improve its financial management and quality of social services. In effect, when Hien was barely out of school, she was invited to work as a financial management expert at the mayor's office in New York City. The city's mayor was Michael Bloomberg, a famous billionaire and also the owner of Bloomberg News, where she had worked.

The financial management board of New York City is responsible for allocating huge budgets - around $60 billion each year. Here, Hien was in charge of managing construction and traffic repair projects with a budget of $5 billion per year.

Infrastructure projects regarding roads and bridges in New York had to go through Hien's "gates". After carefully considering and analysing the projects, Hien proposed a restructuring plan to her managers. Most of Hien's plans were approved by her managers.

"Since your position was so important, did any transport company in New York come to you to lobby for a project?" I asked Hien.

She smiled gently and said, "The projects never saw any corruption. Party B did not come to me to bribe. If anyone received gifts worth more than $50, he/she would be prosecuted."

After six years of working at the mayor's office in New York, Hien realised that the biggest city in the US was nearly saturated, so its development slowed down. Again, Hien quit her job at the mayor's office, which was the dream of many people, to find a new challenge that could make a big change to society.

‘Golden path'

In June 2012, Hien said goodbye to the US and returned to Viet Nam. Hien wanted to use her experiences and relationships for the benefit of the youth who were pursuing their dream of studying in the US.

Tran Vu Toan, who won a full scholarship at the Wesleyan University in the US, and was famous for a clip on Youtube and Facebook about his experiences of learning English, shared the idea with Hien. Together, they set up a centre supporting people studying in the US and called it Golden Path Academics (GPA).

Talking excitedly about her centre, Hien said, "During the 15 years I lived in the US, I often helped my friends' children to find school scholarships. I realised the great demand of parents to let their children study in the US even though domestic consultancy services are not good. So I want to build a good counselling centre operated by overseas students themselves."

Shortly after that, Hien and Toan published the "Golden Path Guide handbook," the first professional tool to help Vietnamese students wanting to study in the US in any of the 600 selected universities and colleges, and hundreds of articles about every topic related to the overseas study procedures and updated enrolment information. In a short time the GPA has had thousands of people visiting its website

Hien said that many Vietnamese students have the financial ability and learning capacity, but they still lack information and professional support services. As a woman who went on the same path, Hien wanted the GPA to be a "launch pad" for students to get into famous universities and have enough confidence to study there.

Seeing how Hien gives counselling, and works with her clients and operates her company, everyone is impressed by her knowledge and energy. Living on flights... New York, Boston, Ha Noi, Sai Gon... she never rests even for a moment.

"I love my job, so for me work is like taking rest," Hien said.

She ran her hand through her long hair. It was thick and black, and so Viet Nam. And Hien said she had no plans to dye it yellow or brown! — VNS

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