In the mid-1980s, Dam Bich Thuy had what was considered to be one of the best jobs in Vietnam, working for her government at a time when state sector employment was the place to be.
But it wasn’t where she found the greatest satisfaction, and to her parents’ horror, she quit and took a risk.
“I dropped out of the state sector and tried to establish the first privately-owned firm in Vietnam. I had a dream at that time to prepare to welcome foreign investors and companies to Vietnam,” she said. “All our hard work paid off.”
Thuy, the founding president of Fulbright University of Vietnam, the first private, nonprofit American-style liberal arts institution in that country, delivered the commencement speech to more than 600 Carthage College students in the graduating Class of 2019, along with their parents, friends and faculty in the N. E. Tarble Athletic and Recreation Center field house on Sunday. Thuy also received an honorary doctorate degree in civil law from the college, which was presented by its president, John Swallow.
In February 1994, then-President Bill Clinton removed the trade embargo on Vietnam, and the two countries established diplomatic relations a year later. The move would enable her country’s economy to prosper.
“I was sitting in my dorm in Philadelphia, and hearing the news, I did cry, but I think it was tears of joy because I knew at the time all that I wanted to do could come true,” she said.
After that, many of her clients set up businesses in Vietnam, and the economy was liberalized, jobs were created and the private sector, which had been viewed as “second rate”, became more prestigious, she said.
“I had the last laugh, I can say,” she said.
For nearly 20 years, she worked in the financial services sector, helping Australia New Zealand Bank establish its investment banking business in Asia. The bank later made her the first Vietnamese national to lead an international bank’s operations there.
She said, while many of the graduates may already have a clear plan for what they want to do with their future, she encouraged them to stay open to changes.
“Stick to your plan, but at the same time, please keep an open mind about unexpected things that may happen, and one day you will face it,” she said. “These things may look weird, or you may feel uncomfortable when facing them. But you are still very young, and you can try it.”
She said that career paths don’t have to be linear and that they should be prepared for “things outside your comfort zone.” Thuy said finding their true calling can occur under such circumstances, too.
“In my case, I never thought I’d like to manage people,” she said.
She said wondered why she would waste her time listening to workers complain about human resource issues from maternity leave to wages.
“Closing a transaction is great, but after that transaction, there would be another transaction. But creating opportunities for people around you, making them successful, making them happy — I think that is a very long-lasting satisfaction one can have,” she said.
Thuy said that success is not a substitute for value.
“To be flexible and open-minded means that you always have to face trade-offs,” she said. “If you’re not sure if the risk is too big to take, or the unexpected opportunities too strange for you to accept at that moment, you can go back to your core values … and that will help you to make the right decision.”
In stepping away from the comfort and money of the corporate world, one thing that kept her believing in what she is doing now is her core values, of which one is to find a way to help people.
“To create value added, using the corporate term, to make people’s lives better, and I found it in education,” she said. “And having these core values stick with you, it will help you a lot in serving as your career compass.”
She congratulated the graduates, many of whom are certain about their career paths.
“Do it with all your heart and souls. But if at some point you have doubts, I think many of you will face it … don’t lose heart and give yourself a chance to try things that you are not sure (of),” she said. “For those of you who are still wondering what you are going to do and what is your passion in life, it is not unusual. Just don’t look around and try to compare yourself with your very sure classmate. And, don’t let that uncertainty scare you. It may be your blessing. Just be open and embrace all the unusual twists and turns, and I’m sure you will find your calling one day.”
Delivering the senior class address was Sabiella Gomez, winner of Carthage’s Distinguished Senior Award. Gomez, who graduated with a degree in graphic design and communications, with a minor in sociology, harkened back to a quote from the movie “Kung Fu Panda” and recalled all the hard work that she and her classmates put forth on their journey to graduating.
“The past is history. The future is a mystery. But, today is a gift and that’s why they call it the present,” she said looking out at the sea of black caps and gowns.
Gomez said three things she’ll be able to take away from her college experience are “integrity, initiative and inspiration.”
She called on the class to “stand up for what you believe in and fight for what’s right.” Like Thuy, she encouraged them to take the initiative and to “get out of your comfort zone.”
“Don’t take the path of least resistance. Instead, make your own path and leave a mark,” she said.
She added that they should seek out their inspiration and follow it.
“This is your opportunity to show the world what you have to offer. Utilize what you have learned and take it into the world,” she said. “Get inspired, so you can inspire those around you.”
Also honored was Raymond Johnson, a 1960 Carthage graduate who received the Distinguished Alumni award. Johnson, along with his wife Susan, founded The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, which contains the largest collection of Russian realist paintings outside the former Soviet Union. Loren H. Semler, a 1965 graduate, was awarded Carthage Flame, the highest honor bestowed by Carthage which recognizes outstanding service to the college and the community. Semler’s daughter Kathy received the award on his behalf.