Thursday, May 28, 2015

Meeting SAISers in Vietnam

One of the things that sets SAIS apart is the close-knit community students become part of when they start their SAIS studies. In the post below, Ben West, an alumnus from the U.S., tell us about the SAIS network in action. 

I am a recent SAIS graduate and earlier this spring I moved to Vietnam’s capital Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  After only ten days in my new home, I experienced first-hand the power and reach of the SAIS network.

I made contact with the head of the SAIS alumni network in the city, Chuong Tran (DC ’86) who invited me to take a tour of a new development project just north of town. SAIS economics professor and resident Vietnam expert, Jim Riedel, was in town and came along on the tour. Coincidentally, I met a future bolognese, Sarah Piccini, who is currently living in Ho Chi Minh City.

Just like that, the four of us, representing the faculty and three different classes of SAIS came together for a day of “economic tourism” in southern Vietnam.

From Left: Sarah Piccini (BC ’16), Ben West (BC/DC’15), 
Prof. Jim Riedel and Chuong Tran (DC ’86)
The four of us, plus other associates of Chuong, went to Binh Duong province, about a 45-minute drive north of Ho Chi Minh City. The provincial government there is pushing development hard (click here to see a video) and is trying to attract people to the area.

Despite all of its hard work, it was obvious that the area was having trouble attracting residents and I suppose they hoped that we would buy some apartment blocks or something.

During a meeting with some of the developers, Professor Riedel highlighted the fact that the development was completely government funded. Later, over lunch, we discussed the shortfalls of relying too heavily on central coordination for development projects; without outside investors, there was no guarantee that there would be demand for the new residential and commercial properties. The government had provided ample supply, but the demand was lacking. All those pages of supply and demand curves during my years at SAIS came flying at me as we walked through a shopping mall full of stuff but without customers; or as we passed million dollar villas surrounded by empty lots.

 Tran and Riedel at the impressive Binh Duong City Hall
Running in the background of all this, of course, was the fact that it was bringing together us four SAISers: past, present and future. It was great for me to get acquainted with people in my new home (as well as get to see some areas off the beaten path) and I think it helped Sarah, the future SAISer, get an idea of what it meant to be joining this new community before she starts this fall. 

I had seen the SAIS network in action in Bologna and DC, and this certainly isn’t the first time that it’s helped me, but this past month, I felt the huge geographic reach of the SAIS alumni network. 

So, for all of you out there who have already been accepted or are thinking about applying to SAIS, whether in Bologna or DC, look up your local SAIS alumni chapter and go see what they’re up to. You might find yourself off an adventure before you even step foot in the classroom. 

Ben West

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