Mr. Michael Michalak – I hope I can help TTU to become the best university in Viet Nam


The Story of Mr. Michael Michalak, former United States Ambassador to Vietnam, and member of TTU Board of Trustees and Founding Father, follows his visit to TTU where he delivered a speech about “His Own University Experience and How It Helped his Career Path”.

It is a very exciting time for me to be part of TTU

During my confirmation hearings as American Ambassador to Vietnam I told the Senators that I would try to double the number of students coming from Vietnam to the United States to study. When I arrived, Vietnam was number 13 in terms of countries sending students to the US. When I left, Vietnam was number 8, and now I believe there are about 18,000 students every year going to the US to study. During my tour here of 3 and a half years, Mm. Yen was one of the people with whom I worked very closely on education issues. She told me she wanted to set up a new university based on the American teaching style and American curriculum to help improve higher education here in Vietnam.  After I left Hanoi and retired, Mm. Yen asked me if I could become an advisor to the board of TTU to help her improve Vietnamese higher education. So I have been here 2 to 4 times since then. Even before I was an advisor, I visited Tan Tao.  I was here when this building was just a hole in the ground and some of the pillars had just begun to rise up from the ground. Now that I’m back, we’re just one year away from the 1st graduating class of TTU, so I think that it is a very exciting time to be part of the university.

My university was very much like TTU

 My own experience in higher education started at a university very much like TTU.  I was born in Detroit, Michigan. It is used to be the automobile capital of the world and one of the most exciting cities in the US. And just outside the city is a university called Oakland University. And, like TTU, it was started on a grant of land.

In the case of TTU, Mm. Yen basically gave the university all the land. In the case of Oakland University, a woman named Matilda Dodge Wilson gave a huge piece of land to the university. When I went to the university it was very much like TTU. It had just four buildings at that time. We had the north and south foundation halls. We had the library. The thing that was unique about Oakland is that it was small. I was part of the 4th graduating class.

The faculties – the pioneers – want to be a part of this new university

The faculty was very young. Many had just received their Master’s degree or PhD. They came to open the university because they thought they want to be a part of this new university.  They want to be a part of forming the educational experience for a whole new group of students.

I think that’s what you have here today at TTU:  You have all these guys, men and women who have PhDs from Vietnamese universities and outside universities. They are here to help you to learn. Being part of a young university like this is similar to pioneers who start new traditions, new customs, and a new way of life.

Do not fear failures

Being at this new university reminds me of the first time I was away from home, the first time I left my home. I remember in one of my literature classes, I was asked to keep a journal. We were all required to write something in the journal and turn it in once a day or once a week. We could write anything we wanted. If you wanted to write an essay, write an essay. If you wanted to write a song, write it. If you wanted to write a poem, write a poem. The first time I did the journal, it was very pathetic, in fact terrible. I don’t even remember what I wrote about. I did remember the teacher said, “Yeah, yeah, keep doing it. You are doing fine. Keep at it. Keep at it.” We learn a lot by thinking about how to use language and how to write. 

We learn how to think, to ask questions, to interact with each other

It was the first time I had a seminar class. In class you have readings and during class you talked about what you read. You asked questions about Asian civilization, about the Greek and Romans and poetry. We read and tried to figure out what we thought would be a meaningful thing to say. We thought about what the writer was trying to say. Again it was the way we learned how to think, how to ask questions, and how to interact with each other. You now have the same opportunities as I did.

A foundation right at the university – learn from great minds of faculty

In order to become a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (in the US it is called the State Department)  you have to take an examination.  I took a 4-hour test and I passed it – by one point!. After that, I learned to be a diplomat. I have had a great time traveling the world and seeing different people. It is my university education that gave me the foundation to do that, a foundation that makes me able to switch from being a rocket scientist (my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree were in Physics). My university experience made me able to sit down and learn how to think. I never forgot the experience that I had at Oakland University. And that’s why I think you have the same opportunity as mine. You can learn from the really great minds of faculty. The message I want to bring to you this time is that you have a unique opportunity, a unique university here and I think you can help to make this university become one of the great universities in Vietnam. 

Always respect your professors

When you leave, remember who you are sitting next to. Remember who helped you in class and who you helped. Remember your professors.  They will be some of the best resources you have. Some of your professors will be here for a long time while others will move on to other places. I think by keeping in mind the connections you make at Tan Tao, you can help this university become a unique and memorable place. The relationship you form with the faculty members will last for the rest of your life. Always get their email addresses. Don’t be afraid to write Christmas cards. They want to hear from you.

I am very happy to have come to Tan Tao.   One of the things that I’m supposed to do is talk to Mm. Yen about the changes I have seen since the last time I was here.  Most of the buildings are the same but there are some remarkable new ones. I saw the medical school buildings which are very impressive.  They are just beginning but they are making very good progress. It’s really fantastic.

The Business school is going to be finished soon but before the Business School gets its own building it will share space with the engineering school, which is good to have communication between people who think up new ideas and people who want to help sell those ideas..

I think you have a chance here to have a unique learning experience, to take advantage of a faculty that wants to help you have a great experience.  The faculty and the buildings can only do so much, the really important part of your education is you.  You will get out of it what you put into it.

Now let’s get to some Questions and  hope I can provide answers for you!

During Q & A, Mr. Michael Michalak answered all students’ questions

What are the advantages of TTU as compared to other universities in Vietnam?

Mr. Michael: I am glad that you ask this question. Right here. Sitting in front of you are the reasons Tan Tao is going to be one of the best Universities in Vietnam. The professors here are as good or better than any faculty in other universities in Viet Nam. They came to Tan Tao to work with students not just lecture to them.  That’s why you chose to come to this university. This combination is very powerful. It’s an important fact that you have a faculty that really cares for students. I want you in the future to become a millionaire, or a banker, so that as alumni of TTU, you will be able to give lots of money to the school.

In reality, many unpredictable problems happen every day. What is the first thing you do to deal with these things? What is your advice for TTU Students?

Mr. Michael: First of all you should get more data because your first impression about unexpected things that happen will probably be wrong. So the idea is try not to jump to the conclusion right away because you don’t have enough information yet. Make up your mind based on what you learn.

The TTU slogan: From knowledge to stars. I like that. Take it and manage the unique characteristics of TTU. You have a chance for more interaction with faculty and classmates. It’s a small school, so you can get to know people here quite easily. You can get a good education here. Build on that. Maintain those opportunities. Other advice? Get out and travel as much as you can. Travel. I like it. The more you see what’s going on the world, the more you learn. Take a year off to go travel to other places, other countries, to open your mind and have a global view.

Do you think that students should take a part-time job during their studies in university to get experiences, or they should just focus on studying?

Mr. Michael: I had a part time job. But it depends on your own circumstances. There are some students whose parents are not wealthy enough to afford paying for their education, so they have to work during weekends to pay for their study. My parents were not wealthy, so not only did I have to work during my school year but also during the summer. I also had to work to pay for my next year. Ideally if you have a scholarship, work hard to maintain your scholarship. It’s better not to spend your time working but instead concentrate on your studying. If you don’t have scholarship and you do take a part-time job, that’s fine. Keep it but make sure it doesn’t negatively affect your study. If you don’t have a part-time job, it is not necessary to try to find it.

Vietnamese universities mainly teach students based mainly on theory rather than practical matters. As a former Ambassador, what do you think that Vietnamese universities should do to change that old way of teaching?

Mr. Michael: Vietnam needs you to learn both the theory and the practice.  You have the chance to do that at TTU.   Many of the courses you take are from the Rice University and other American universities. These courses involve thinking and resolving practical problems. It’s also important to try to have internships. Internships will make you have to do practical things. The system you learn at TTU tries to find the right balance between giving you the theory you need and the practical experience to implement it or even change the theory to fit the real world.

What is the most challenging obstacle that TTU must overcome in order to achieve the American standard of education?

Mr. Michael:  Wow, that’s a great question. There is not one answer to that. It is a whole process to reach the goal of accreditation. Accreditation means that you have met the standards of a committee in the US which is set up to do accreditation. For example, NEASC (New England Association Schools and Colleges) is the accreditation institution that TTU is working with. Right now TTU is going through the acdcreditation  process. This process involves things like: how many students do you have? What is the size of your library? What does your curriculum look like? What kind of faculty members do you have? What kind of funding do you have? You have to put these different factors together to reach the American standard. The management of TTU is talking to the accreditation committee.TTU needs time to meet the standards.  This is a multi-year process and once you have been accredited, you need to keep up those standards.  The committee wil visit your campus periodically after accreditation to make sure you are keeping up the standards.. We are working hard to meet the standards. We talked to a woman From the NEASC some time ago when she visited TTU.   She is actually very hopeful that TTU will be able to meet the American standard. But we need time. We need more students, a bigger library, and more faculty members. But we have reached the beginning. So hang in there!

Planning is very important. Back in the days when you were a student, had you ever planned someday you would become an ambassador?

Mr. Michael: During my university time, I even didn’t know what an ambassador was.  That is why my education was so important, it gave me the flexibility to understand new opportunities and to be open to new ideas and new professions.

If any of us here wants to become the Vietnamese Ambassador to the US, what should we do?

Mr. Michael: Keep on studying English. Today your English has improved a lot compared with my last visit here when I had a talk with students.  Study hard and then take the exam to enter the Foreign Ministry.  I’m sure if you work hard you will have a chance to get in and then do your best to become the Ambassador to the US.

Why do you choose a university that was so much like TTU?

Mr. Michael: That’s a great question. At Oakland University, they told me they had young faculty who wanted to work with students so that there would be more contact between faculty and the students. Many American universities have ten to forty thousand students – all in the same place. These schools are huge. I didn’t like big universities. I wanted something small, and I wanted to be treated special so that’s why I chose it. You have made the right choice.

Written by Kim Chau from the recorder.