After her first year at U-M, Ann Duong decided to venture outside of the classroom—way out. The Zeeland, Michigan native wanted to pursue her academic interests in economics and health and development in another part of the world. And so she sought an internship in Vietnam—a place to which she was connected through family, but which she desired to explore in her own way.

In the summer of 2011, Duong jetted off to the country some call the “tiny dragon of Asia.” While interning in Ho Chi Minh City with VinaCapital Foundation, an organization that provides health and education programs for Vietnamese youth, she researched and co-wrote a paper examining different hospital practices around the world. She also worked with young girls who are part of ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, many of whom do not make it to high school. One of her project’s goals was to encourage them to attend school and eventually pursue careers.

“Social and cultural barriers may keep [these girls] from pursuing higher education. So I helped with a conference that brought girls into the city from all over Vietnam in order to connect them with one another, as well as expand their horizons on college and career opportunities,” says Duong.

As part of the conference, Duong showed girls options for higher education and introduced them to local businesspeople, in fields many had never considered, such as banking. “It was especially meaningful for the girls to meet women in leadership positions within these fields,” Duong says. “It helped reinforce the idea that they have more career options than just ‘teacher’ or ‘doctor.’”

While hiking, Duong took this snapshot of two young girls following her in hopes of selling her something. Some girls in Vietnam forgo schooling in order to earn extra income for their families.

With another year’s worth of LSA courses fueling her passion, Duong was eager to return to Vietnam the following summer. So with the support of an LSA Global Experience Scholarship and the International Institute Individual Fellowship, she traveled to Hanoi, the country’s capital, and interned at an American-based NGO called Family Health International 360. Duong’s second summer centered on the impact and cost-effectiveness of HIV prevention programs funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, instituted under President George W. Bush. The United Nations reports that Vietnam faces a concentrated HIV epidemic, with approximately 280,000 citizens living with HIV or AIDS—a staggering half-percent of the population. Access to information about HIV and AIDS is limited in the largely rural and agricultural nation, and those infected face social prejudice ranging from denial of employment to expulsion from school.

To help improve access to health information, Duong analyzed a mobile technology called MHealth. The MHealth program aims to increase access to healthcare and health-related information, like confidential advice on HIV and AIDS, in order to improve the NGO’s ability to diagnose and track disease rates and provide training to medical workers in the field. Over the course of the summer, Duong pored over data collected by workers who had begun implementing the MHealth program in other nations. Her goal was to devise a strategy for use of the technology in Vietnam, as well as predict how successful such a program would be there. Although the study is still ongoing, Duong’s research may eventually help a farmer in a far-flung part of the country receive much-needed medical advice, or aid a health worker on the ground.

A young heart surgery patient poses with his parents, fundraisers, Duong (far right), and two other researchers. Duong analyzed data on patients’ post-surgery results in order to improve their quality of care.

Even with a working knowledge of the Vietnamese language, Duong says that she had to learn how to communicate and relate to the Vietnamese people. Cultural differences were rife, such as the extreme stigma against mental illness and HIV in Vietnam, forcing Duong to tread lightly when discussing these subjects with fellow researchers or locals. In spite of some challenges, she still experienced many of the country’s wonders for herself. During her second summer, she and a friend made a cross-country road trip on a motorcycle, during which she hiked, met new people, and tasted the local fare. On one particular stop, she joined a soccer game being played by some young boys, one of whom invited her back to meet his entire family.

Ultimately, Duong’s work during both summer internships abroad invigorated her passion for her customized major in economics of health and development, because it cemented the idea that the particular healthcare needs of a nation are influenced by its economic, cultural, and technological structures. The internships “taught me the skill of adapting quickly to new environments, allowing me to transition seamlessly between different projects, teams, cultures, languages and countries,” she says.

Duong says she plans to attend both medical school and graduate school for public health or international relations. She also hopes to continue her work in a global health field.

“It feels like I wasn’t just pushing papers around,” she says of her two incredible summers. “I was doing something substantial.”