It was a 12-hour bumpy bus ride from my hometown in mountainous north Vietnam in order to be at the class for my Masters in Systems Engineering. Twelve hours one-way – the same as from here to Sydney and half-way back, just to listen to a lecturer!
This was back in the days when RMIT Vietnam was just a single building at the National University in Hanoi.
Systems engineering taught me the importance of being pragmatic and realistic. It’s about perseverance in problem solving. Of being prepared to accept that change sometimes needs to be gradual, regardless of how urgent it is.
That launched my career and work around the world, first with Microsoft and then with Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.
In 2006, when I was working for Microsoft in strengthening its relationship with strategic partners, I was asked to take on the position of Country Director in Vietnam for a prestigious American NGO named Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF).
It was set up by US Vietnam war veterans who first started to campaign against the war in the early 1970s.
One of the main leaders was a man called Bobby Muller, who set up the Nobel Prize winning international campaign against landmines. Bobby fought in Vietnam in ’68 and almost died, but came out of that near-death experience transformed. Before that he was a gung-ho very patriotic American. And he came out of it and realised everything that was wrong with it and started to organise an anti-war movement.
He’s an amazing man. And he’s paralysed from the hip down. He’s been sitting on the one chair since April 1969, so 47 years. So a person with serious disability like that has been able to do so much for the world. He really leads by example. And he had that level of impact on me and so many other people, particularly a number of key politicians in the US.
He and I strongly believed that the legacy of the tragic war has left a very deep scar in our country, and it would take the younger generation, like myself, to help mitigate its sufferings on our people in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War is fundamental in world history, not just the US and Vietnam.
With the amount of bombs, ammunition that was used in Vietnam, several times larger than those used in the first two world wars, and the area that was bombed is so small compared to Europe – it wasn’t just ammunition, but chemicals.
The legacy problems left from the war are vast, and for decades they divided the US and Vietnam.
Both sides wouldn’t look at each other eyeball to eyeball on these matters.
I was given an opportunity to work on unexploded bombs and Agent Orange, linking up with the most senior members of the US Congress and Senate such as Patrick Leahy, John Kerry and John McCain.
When we started working on these issues, the problem was too big to comprehend. Yet, I knew that we were not alone and each of us played our role, seeking gradual improvement bit by bit.
The problem is not getting rid of every single bomb or landmine or clean up every hot spot, it’s about working with the limited resources we have to ensure the safety of people. So it is a risk management approach. You have to learn how to live with it in a way that minimises the impact and maximises safety. You can’t fix it all.
I knew that we had to be pragmatic and we had to work hard to get the US Government to participate in this effort. And we did.
Supporting people with disabilities has been a key part of Australia’s foreign policy globally and in Asia Pacific. We need more cooperation on this humanitarian issue in our region, including between Australia, the US and Vietnam.
RMIT Vietnam had a deep effect on me. It gave me exposure at the age of 23 to a non-Vietnamese education, with completely different ways of teaching and thinking.
That change was so profound that it boosted my confidence to a different level. I then believed in myself that if I had been good enough to get the scholarship and to graduate, then I could go on exploring the world without limit.
With that new sense of self and excitement about another world to explore, beyond my home town Hagiang, I have had the most rewarding career, working to help to lessen the sufferings of the poor, those with disabilities, and those affected by the tragedy of war.
This was all made possible because of men and women of RMIT in the mid-90s who could see the vision for RMIT in Vietnam.
Thao Griffiths studied her Master of Engineering (Systems Engineering) at RMIT, graduating in 2002. She has been the Country Director of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation since 2007 and is a Fulbright scholar and an Eisenhower Fellow.