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An Interview with Huong Dang Thi

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Here’s a story about how to hitch your wagon to a star and never let go (against all odds).

Huong was born in a small village in Vietnam, but her dreams were anything but small. She left home, aged 12, and travelled to the buzzling city of Hanoi to work so that she can, one fine day, pursue her goal of getting an education. It was a tough start to what was to become a story of resilience and hope.

Her success wasn’t due to luck. By all means. It was blood, sweat and tears all the way. Against some considerable odds, Huong fought tooth and nail to navigate her way to a degree from Box Hill Institute in Melbourne, Australia, one from Swinburne University and an impressive professional career with Know One Teach One (KOTO), a social enterprise and charity located in Vietnam, Asia. She was present enough every step of the way to take that lucky opening that not many get the chance to. Huong certainly has a story to tell and there are many lessons we can all learn from it.

We managed to catch Huong in between her trips throughout Europe, just a couple of hours before hopping on the next train to London Gatwick airport. This time, she was checking in for Amsterdam. Working as the director of Marketing and Partnerships Engagement at KOTO as well as the founder and managing director of HopeBox—a social enterprise focusing on numerous social projects in Vietnam—fitting in Huong’s schedule any time soon would have been close to impossible. The clock was ticking. Still, she looked more relaxed than ever. She was ready to share her story. The question was, were we ready for a life lesson?

With a box of hope, that’s how everything began

We started our informal chat talking about what she’s been up to lately, slowly going down memory lane. HopeBox quickly came into view: an initiative that she currently oversees 24/7 alongside a team of enthusiasts. The goal of the project is to provide jobs to women who come from a domestic violence background. This initiative began years ago and it just got materialised in 2017: “I feel that this year was just the right time to launch it.”

With Huong, everything comes down to helping this and the next generations at the same time. She puts it much better than we ever will: “I firmly believe in the power of education, which is key to change kids’ lives in order to inspire them to take leadership in the future.”

Despite the fact that Huong’s story never followed a straight line, the beliefs she had never got off track. She believed (and still does) in the laws of the universe and how everything ties in together. “Since I can remember, I was an advocate of the idea that things happen for a reason but, at the same time, we need to work hard to get where we want to be, where we want to go. You can’t simply demand and order the universe to provide you with things. You can’t simply rely on a dream. Life is more about having dreams and working hard to make them happen. If they don’t materialise, you have to accept it and move on and, why not, make other things happen.”

Nothing is more powerful than seeing a once disadvantaged person come back and tell the next generation of KOTO trainees ‘I know what is like to be sitting where you are sitting, but look at me now’. Through education and opportunities, Huong has become by far one of the leaders in the area of social enterprise movements in Vietnam.

[Jimmy Pham, Founder and Executive Chairman of KOTO, Vietnam]

Persistent and ambitious, she really wanted to get her high school diploma while studying at KOTO, therefore asked Jimmy Pham (the founder of KOTO) for a chance to study at both schools. He said yes. “And I did it”, Huong says with a humongous smile on her face. “I graduated in late 2017 from high school and from KOTO. It was so hard allocating time to all the exams. Nonetheless, it was by far the best time of my life.”

Huong’s KOTO

Even though she was born in a disadvantaged family and environment, from an early age, Huong was certain that education will change her life one day. Leaving home at the age of 12, she started working as a babysitter. Moving out from a small village to a big city such as Hanoi was a life-changing moment indeed. Everything was different, too different. A shock, to put it lightly.

Huong had to start being an adult, an adult looking after a four-month baby. She did this for four years and every single day of those years, “I dreamed about finishing high school. Becoming a teacher was my life’s dream.” And after four years of babysitting, she decided: it is time to go back to school.

I firmly believe in the power of education, which is key to change kids’ lives in order to inspire them to take leadership in the future.

Huong couldn’t enrol into a public school because she didn’t have a residency permit in the city of Hanoi. Being forced to attend an informal school during night time, she worked very hard during the day and studied during the night. The family she worked for as a babysitter didn’t accept her decision and kicked her out of the house. “Automatically, I became a kid living on the street. I had nowhere to stay. I didn’t know anyone in Hanoi. I had no relatives, no family, no friends. Nothing. I went on living under the stairs of somebody’s house, a staircase that I paid for month by month. I couldn’t afford a room.” Huong was caught up between the devil and the deep blue sea, but that didn’t stop her. Not for a second.

Automatically, I became a kid living on the street. I had nowhere to stay. I didn’t know anyone in Hanoi. I had no relatives, no family, no friends. Nothing. I went on living under the stairs of somebody’s house, a staircase that I paid for month by month. I couldn’t afford a room.

Huong’s mum wanted her to go back to the countryside because, as culture has it, in Vietnam, if you are a girl, you must give the opportunity for the boy in your family to prosper. When you reach the age of 17-18, you ought to return home—not many people leave their village actually, Huong was one of the few that did—get married, work on the farm, have kids and follow in the footsteps of your mother. Huong decided that this won’t be her lifecycle and “stayed put in Hanoi and fought for an opportunity to remain in school”.

The first rendezvous with what soon became the love of her life

I had to wake up every morning at 2am, to cook and sell sticky rice on the street during the day. During the night, I went to school. In spite of the fact that I managed to sleep roughly two hours a day, my dreams kept me going. I wanted to go to university!”. It was then when it all changed for Huong. “One day Li, a classmate of mine, suggested me to go to KOTO. I hesitated. I was afraid people will end up hurting me again. My answer was a definite no. What I didn’t know then was that that short conversation with Li would change my life entirely. Two months later, my life was a disaster, a total mess. The neighbourhood I was living in was very dangerous, a lot of people were addicted to drugs, the locals didn’t want me to sell sticky rice on the street as it was highly competitive. You can imagine, I didn’t have much to lose. I said to myself, let’s check out KOTO then.”

With hundreds of butterflies in her stomach, Huong went to KOTO’s offices. Saw the signage on the front door. Stepped back. Took a deep breath. Entered the building. And her life changed forever. After months of waiting, Huong was accepted for their 18-month training programme.

Huong reached for the moon and added English to her résumé (for the first time)

Huong looks back at her days before going to KOTO: “I had very little confidence in what I could do, I didn’t speak a word of English – only the ‘hello’, not even the ‘hi’. If someone would say to me ‘hi’, I didn’t know what that meant. I learned English at KOTO and it changed my whole life, my family, my community.

Then, I wanted to get into uni life, but getting into university in Vietnam is very tough, highly competitive and expensive; plus, I needed to pass a lot of formal exams that I might have not been able to do because I didn’t go to a formal high school in the first place. I quickly landed a job at InterContinental Hotels & Resorts where I worked for nearly two years as waitress and cashier.” After two months in the job, Huong and her brother suffered a serious accident and both were forced to stay at home for three and five months, respectively. “I was convinced that I would lose my job”, Huong remembers. During that time, her family was in a very difficult financial situation: two family members being hospitalised at the same time was highly expensive. They had to pay a lot of money, but once again KOTO helped Huong pay off all that. Jimmy even flew in from Australia to visit her. For Huong, “KOTO was not just a school.” It was the definition of a family, to say the least.

After she recovered, Huong went back to work at the hotel to then start her career at KOTO as function coordinator, receptionist and cafe hideaway’s supervisor after which she moved into another department of KOTO taking on the role of marketing and communications manager. “It was then when I stopped working in the hospitality field.” Accepted to Box Hill Institute of Tafe, Australia, Huong’s professional path and life would change forever.

Discover Huong’s Box Hill University.

Shortly after Box Hill, Huong’s dreams of learning grew even stronger and, just like she did since she was born, Huong took life by the horns and applied to Swinburne University in Australia.

Discover Huong’s Swinburne University.

What happened after graduating from uni?

One day, a friend of Huong’s who worked as a product manager at an IT firm in Australia told her that she needs a business analyst and it’s very hard to find a good one. “Would you come and work for me?”, she asked. Huong refused the offer, she just wasn’t interested in IT. But during a coffee lunch with her friends, they were discussing the hot topic of the moment: finding the right job that can land you an Australian visa sponsorship. When Huong found out that business analyst was in the list of the eligible occupations, “I texted my friend from the IT company. I wanted to go for it. They said they might be able to sponsor and hire me for their office in New Zealand.”

I texted my friend from the IT company. I wanted to go for it. They said they might be able to sponsor and hire me for their office in New Zealand.

First thing after, Huong went home and asked her host family: what does business analyst even mean? The family advised her not to take the job. “You are a people person, not a data-oriented person. Don’t do it”, they said. Nonetheless, she thought that this may be an opportunity to get a permanent residency in New Zealand, which she could then use to work in Australia. She applied. She applied without knowing what the job entails exactly. “At the interview, the CEO was questioning my IT background. I kept on talking about the tasks I perform at KOTO, the website management bits.” While he made it very clear that what she did so far wasn’t database management, he offered her the job. Why? Well, she knew how to sell her strong points: “Listen, you are looking for a business analyst. A business analyst needs to be a communicator between your developers and your clients. I believe I’m a good communicator. I can learn all the technicalities.” During the same period of time, Jimmy was asking Huong to work for him. After six months of working as a business analyst, she decided to go back to Vietnam. “I told my then-manager that my heart is with KOTO.”

What’s next on Huong’s agenda?

Words can never do justice to stories like Huong’s, not only because she―against all odds and all the obstacles life threw at her―kept on going, head held high, but because Huong did all this without ever questioning her dreams. Time was ticking, now even more frantically than when we began our conversation and we already made her miss a few trains to Gatwick airport.

There’s a new Master’s on my list!

Fighting for the wellbeing of our planet and helping young people to pursue education is a forever to-be-continued endeavour for Huong, so we had to let her board the next train. “I still want to continue my education and study in the UK or the US for a year. Hopefully in the next two years I will find a place to fulfil my next dream. There’s a new Master’s on my list!”, Huong told us while the train doors were closing in.

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