Name: Jessica Kraus
Graduation Year: Class of 2011
Current Town: Ha Noi, Vietnam
Hometown: Tenafly, NJ
Major: Public Health Studies
I live on a street named after a revolutionary who was executed by French colonists. It’s just north of Hanoi Hilton, south of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, east of a statue of Lenin, west of a motorbike driver who is always dressed in a U.S. Army uniform.
A year after graduation, about the only thing that is clear to me is that I am far from the haven of Homewood. Gone are the days of introducing myself at Hopkins as Jessica, a public health major from New Jersey. Here I’m classified at first glance as a tây, an all-encompassing Vietnamese word for a Westerner ( … whether I’m Swedish or Dutch, 16 or 27 is speculated). By answering typical introductory questions, I enrolled myself in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, as: Jessica, United States, 22 years old, single, working for an organization that is known for having distributed 12 billion condoms internationally.
Transitioning and no longer on Hopkins time, my mind began racing. I became more hyperactively self-conscious than ever before. I felt my American superiority complex weakening. Feelings of empathy replaced feelings of sympathy. Feelings of nostalgia were distinguished from feelings of homesickness. Hopkins became a place of my past. I felt myself professionally becoming more specialized while simultaneously becoming less qualified for other positions. I realized that I knew more restaurants in Hanoi than in any other city. I developed an idea of where other decisions would have taken me and where future ones might.
Overwhelmed, I turned to my support network: my older friends, family members, and academic advisors. They viewed this thought-process as a natural consequence of graduation, one that is healthy, necessary, and escalates while going down a non-traditional path. (I say all of this as a warning for any future graduates reading this.)
With no advice actually given, my supporters opened their doors (and email accounts), listened, and then probed me with self-centered questions: Why did you move to Vietnam? Why did you major in public health? Why do you support development assistance for health? Where and with whom would you rather work? What next?
Each question just brought with it more thoughts. Had I been blind-sided into thinking that I would feel an immediate sense of belonging in Hanoi? Was I brainwashed at Hopkins into becoming a public health researcher? Why didn’t I apply to be a teacher’s assistant in the States? Would I be happy living anywhere in the world? Ugh.
Overwhelmed, I dug up my application essay to Hopkins, watched my application video for Princeton in Asia, and read a couple of my Hopkins Interactive blogs. This helped. After much self-evaluation, I learned to love my post-college self, smiling as I heard my Vietnamese coworkers using the words bao cao su (condom) to describe me to their friends. I’ve embraced that this identity is where a whole lot of factors brought me: my parents, upbringing, experiences, personality, education, and, of course, luck.
Education? Does that mean that Johns Hopkins is part of my identity? Of course! Hopkins is a part of my identity and yet it’s not one that is immediately identified.
But, last year, I entered a global minority. Only 7% of the world’s population possesses a college degree (see article). 30% of Americans 25 years and over are currently in possession of a bachelor’s degree (see article). And <0.1% of either population (and even the population of bachelor’s degree-holding Americans) is a Hopkins Blue Jay (see a statistician :-P).
Michael Lewis spoke at the most recent Princeton Convocation. His speech is relevant for all of those in the 7%. He spoke about the luckiness that any recipient of a Princeton degree has:
In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything. All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t. Never forget: In the nation’s service. In the service of all nations.
A recent survey found that 44% of 1,000 people surveyed in Vietnam would like their child’s degree to be from the U.S (TNS VietCycle Education 2011). Parents are spending money in hopes of their children learning English, getting a high score on the TOEFL/IELTS, and enrolling in a U.S. college. To many people, my degree means an increased likelihood of family wealth.
At graduation, surrounded by thousands of fellow graduates and receiving the most popular bachelor’s degree for the Johns Hopkins Class of 2011, the luckiness of having received my degree was hidden from me. Accepting a job on a local salary also means that the wealth of the degree was hidden.
In Vietnam, the arbitrariness of all the factors that define my identity – including my status as being American educated – is clearly seen by me. Living in a foreign city that lacks a city plan, has six million inhabitants, and a six tone language, educated is often the last thing I feel here. But, yet, I’m eagerly invited to weddings because much of what is associated with my identity, including my nationality and the education that came along with it, are seen as lucky. To show how real this is, I’ve met a family here whose names are after wealthy countries: Đức for Germany, Nhật for Japan, Anh for England, Hà Lan for the Netherlands.
Of course, there are ways to gain wealth without a bachelor’s degree. There are plenty of real world skills that our society depends on that aren’t learned in the classroom. And, in the United States, a degree can mean tens of thousands of USDs in loans and a sedentary lifestyle without a guarantee of job security, a high salary, or increased happiness. A degree isn’t for everyone. It certainly doesn’t make me superior in anyway to anyone.
And, come to think of it, my time in Hanoi has sometimes felt closer to utopia than my time at Homewood, (I’d take mango smoothies from a street vendor over soda from a vending machine any day.) but I can see why parents want their children to have four years at a U.S. college. For me personally, the Hopkins environment provided me with a safety net to gain personal freedom in, an exposure to public health, life skills like leasing an apartment and paying rent, a love for Baltimore (yet a gratefulness for the increased city safety of Hanoi), courses that empowered me with a voice, decision-making skills, a support network, an increased cultural competency, an appreciation for research, engineering, and medicine, a revival of my love for baking and biking, a constant craving for CVP and Tambers. Like all other aspects of my identity, I can’t imagine being without it.
I now moved on from Homewood. I live in a rapidly developing country. Change surrounds me. My neighbors have built a house that’s 3x larger than it used to be. The clothing shop on my street is now a hair salon. The restaurant is now a towering, neon-lit karaoke bar…
The times they are a-changin’ here, allowing me to easily join the wave of forward-mindedness by embracing the person I am and am becoming, working to increase luckiness by improving the world’s health while accepting any photo requests, smiling at the Jessica Simpson, Jersey Shore, condom jokes, and Johns Hopkins mispronunciations that come from sharing my identity with others.