Finding brilliant children in tough circumstances
SAIGON-- I'm writing this from a hotel in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, where my husband Michael and I are on vacation. We just spent four days cycling around the Mekong delta with a Vietnamese guide named Hoc.
Hoc is from a small town in the central highlands of Vietnam. In his village, 30 young people graduated from high school with him, but he was the only one to go to university. Ten years ago, he said, if a young person from a small village went to college "he was a famous man." Now, higher education is increasing in Vietnam, but still, only 2 of 100 children have this opportunity.
Nearly 100% of children attend primary school here, though, so that is a start. We rode through several villages as school was letting out for lunch or in the afternoon -- you're immediately surrounded by dozens of children on bicycles shrieking down the road to their wood and sheet metal huts balanced on stilts over the Mekong river's canals or over the rice paddies. Poverty here is grinding -- average income is $200 a year. Though Vietnam's cities are growing and developing rapidly, malnourishment remains a problem in the provinces. According to the government, over a quarter of children are malnourished (and as a Communist government with little incentive to document problems on this front, you can bet the real number is higher).
So, here's the question I've been pondering. There are 20 million children under 18 years old in Vietnam. Let's think about the top 1%, or 200,000 children. Some of those children are in Saigon and Hanoi, where they can tap into international standards of education, internet access, books, museums and all that. But most of those children live in ramshackle huts, with parents who labor all day in the rice paddies or farm catfish on houseboats that get flooded out in severe rainy seasons. How can the government here, or international groups, or the multinational companies that do business in Vietnam, find the brightest children in these circumstances, and ensure that their talents are nurtured?
It's a question that matters for America too-- we have trouble finding and nurturing talent in inner city schools, or in impoverished rural areas too. What's the best approach to finding and polishing diamonds in the rough?