Southeast Asia Study Abroad Trip Changed Perspectives
Professor Robert Homer-Drummond, a professor of theatre at the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University, was born to a missionary family in the war-torn nation of Vietnam in 1969. He was the first American born in the 95thArmy Evacuation Hospital in Danang. He said that soldiers who missed their own children him passed him around for a morale boost, making him an honorary member of the 80th General Support Group.
A year prior to Professor Homer-Drummond’s birth, his grandfather, who was also a missionary, was killed during the Tet Offensive along with six other American missionaries when North Vietnamese soldiers overran his mission compound.
Professor Homer-Drummond, who continued living in Vietnam with his family until he was five, directly experienced the painful effects of one of history’s most brutal wars.
When the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s death approached in 2018, Professor Homer-Drummond saw it as an opportunity to dig deeper into the enduring consequences of the Vietnam War by arranging a study abroad trip to Southeast Asia with his students.
“I have wanted for many years to see where he was killed and to pay my respects. This trip made that possible,” Professor Homer-Drummond said. “As a professor, I had the opportunity to develop travel abroad courses, but what would we study in this case? And how could I make it relevant, not just for me, but for each student who participated? It was very important that it be not just my story, but the story of each person involved.”
Professor Homer-Drummond formed a study abroad course titled “Understanding the Long-Term Effects of War in Vietnam and Cambodia through Travel and Study." He invited Dr. Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers, Associate Dean of the South Carolina School of the Arts, to accompany the class as a lead faculty for the trip. Nine students from various majors enrolled in the course.
While most AU students finished final exams and headed home for the holidays, the study abroad group boarded a plane to explore Vietnam and Cambodia for over two weeks. They traveled for more than 25 hours, flying from Charlotte to Hồ Chí Minh City with two international connections in between.
After arriving, the group traveled between various cities in Vietnam and Cambodia by air, boat and even tuk-tuk, a traditional scooter-like form of transportation. They visited Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Hanoi, Da Nang, Buôn Ma Thuột and Hồ Chí Minh City in Vietnam.
From the beginning, the new culture was eye-opening for many of the students and prompted them to think about their global awareness and understanding.
Ian Coulter, a theatre student, said he decided to enroll in the study abroad course to put the Vietnam War in context. “You can read and study, but going to those places and being in that environment lets you understand it in a different way,” he said.
Many of the historical sites they visited revealed the brutal reality of the Vietnam War. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon was one of their first stops, and it gave them a basis for understanding the war. They also visited the notorious Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum in Phnom Penh, which provided deep insight into the painful bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge. Throughout the trip, the group met often to process their experiences and the emotions and pain they felt.
They also observed mission work in Phnom Penh. Professor Homer-Drummond’s brother and sister-in-law, Alan and Judy Norman, work as doctors at Mercy Medical Center in Phnom Penh. They graciously shared about their ministry work at the Christian hospital, which often includes helping those who were have been harmed by the sex industry.
However, the trip did not lack some lighthearted, traditional Vietnamese and Cambodian adventures. The group enjoyed sipping juice straight out of a fresh coconut while riding a boat on the Mekong River and drinking a famous cup of coffee in the Trung Nguyen Coffee Village of Buôn Ma Thuột. They also ate many unique cultural foods at various restaurants and hotels. Further, they explored each city they visited with a tour guide.
“It was nice to learn in an unconfined environment,” said Sarah Ball, an education major. “All you were responsible to do is absorb. It was a nice break from traditional classroom learning.”
“If you have the opportunity to study abroad, go,” said Iris Tetsch, a theatre/dance major. “I initially wasn’t going on the trip, and I am really thankful I went. It doesn’t only fit into the realm of education but influences you as a student. “
The trip initiated the course, and the students are now spending a spring semester class reflecting on their experience and studying how the war shaped the nations they visited.
However, the classroom aspect of the study abroad class is unusual. After an international trip together, the group contends that they are a family now. They laugh together, distribute witty paper plate awards for special moments on their trip and read aloud from their travel journals. Of course, they also continue to study the war history of Vietnam and Cambodia.
“It has been interesting to see them process a culture that is so different than their own. I think that is an ongoing process as they work through their memories and as they continue to watch films and read about Vietnam and Cambodia,” Professor Homer-Drummond said. “The course has done what it was intended to do, which was to expand their consciousness, understanding and awareness of the world, particularly those two countries. It has been rewarding to see them process and grapple with those realities to figure out how it fits into their worldview.”
The class is planning a CEP event on March 20th at 6:30 p.m. in the Student Center Banquet Hall to share about their time in Vietnam and Cambodia and to encourage students to consider AU’s study abroad program, one of the most expansive in the Southeast. (Food and drinks will be provided by Aramark.)
Dr. Mitchell-Rogers reiterated the importance of studying abroad.
“I can’t stress enough the significance of this kind of experience for university students,” she said. “I spent the summer between my junior and senior years in college abroad, and I still look back on that time as a truly transformative experience. It was my honor to be able to lead a group of AU students on a similar journey, and I’m grateful for our time together in class this semester to process everything.”