KENTWOOD -- Teacher Le Tran wanted to return to her native Vietnam so she could bring examples of its culture and art back to her Kentwood classroom.
Last year, Tran and fellow art teacher Carol Laurn won a Fulbright grant that allowed them to do just that.
Both East Kentwood High School teachers are sharing knowledge gleaned from their trip in the classroom -- and students are taking notice.
"When I heard the word 'Vietnam,' what I imagined is little shacks with roofs made out of hay, and people walking around in those great, goofy-looking hats," junior Selma Suljic said.
"I didn't think that it would be so much like the United States at all. There were apartment buildings and almost everyone owned a store below their house, which was amazing," she said.
In art class this year, students are learning about silk-painting and water puppetry -- both art forms in Vietnam.
Tran's parents immigrated to the United States when she was young. Although she had made two previous return visits, she said she did not have the opportunity before receiving the grant to submerge herself in the country's art.
"I thought it would be so cool for both of us to go on this trip, study about Vietnam and bring it back to the classroom," she said. "What transpired really exceeded my expectations. This entire trip was truly a dream come through for me."
Laurn said she did not even imagine how much she would learn in the trip.
"When you leave your comfort zone and go off to a place where you don't understand the language, where you don't understand the culture, it has a big impact on you," she said. "It was such a great experience."
They brought silk that students have been using to paint with Asian techniques.
"You can tell by the way they're functioning how interested they are," Laurn said of the students.
"They're from a young generation and didn't live through the Vietnam War, and so, in a way, they're very open to everything that I showed them and talked about," Tran said.
"They're just fascinated with the differences in the lifestyle, the culture, even the families and the landscape -- they wanted to know more."
Senior Elizabeth Weber said she was even more interested in the similarities.
"Many of us still believed Vietnam is the same as it was almost 30 years ago, but so much is changing there that there's even a chance some cultural aspects will be lost over the years as the country becomes more 'Western' and industrialized," she said.
"Understanding Vietnam: Beyond the War" is supported by a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Grant and is organized by Michigan State University's Asian Studies Center in collaboration with the College of Education.
By Nardy Baeza Bickel
Reprinted from The Grand Rapids Press