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UF Renews Ties With University In Vietnam

Larry Schnell

Mike Holsinger, (941) 316-1000
Khe Chau (352) 392-7738

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike Holsinger and Khe Chau found their separate ways out of Vietnam before the war there ended in 1975.

Holsinger served as a U.S. Air Force public affairs officer in 1964 and ’65 in what was then South Vietnam. Chau, a Vietnamese agricultural official, fled his native land as the south was about to fall into Communist hands.

A quarter of a century later and half a world away, Holsinger and Chau are part of a team at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, dedicated to re-establishing ties with a Vietnamese agricultural university that once was a partner with UF.

With diplomatic relations restored and trade increasing between the two nations, Holsinger, Chau and at least a dozen other faculty and staff believe that UF and the University of Agriculture and Forestry in Ho Chi Minh City — the former Saigon — could benefit from an exchange of faculty and students.

“I’m very excited about the potential for this exchange,” said Holsinger, now county extension director in Sarasota County. “I couldn’t be more excited about the team. I’d like to give something back to Vietnam.”

Douglas “Pete” Peterson, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, agrees. “I have always regarded educational exchanges and ties between American and Vietnamese schools as a vital component of our developing relationship with Vietnam,” said Peterson, a former Florida congressman.

“This new agreement between the University of Florida and the University of Forestry and Agriculture in Ho Chi Minh City is exactly the kind of program that will serve to increase and improve people-to-people contacts between our two countries.”

Holsinger is spearheading UF/Vietnam reunion efforts through a cooperative agreement, with support from International Programs at IFAS.

Chau, the only native of Vietnam on the team, now is a professor in the department of agricultural and biological engineering. He also is a key player in the efforts to bridge the cultural differences between the two countries and institutions.

Before working as director general for technical affairs and planning in Vietnam’s Department of Agriculture during the war era, Chau was director of the School of Agriculture at the National Agricultural Institute, which later was named University of Agriculture and Forestry. He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Florida and his doctorate at the University of California at Davis. After returning to his country, he left for good in 1975, the year South Vietnam fell.

“Being a native of Vietnam, and because I was involved with that university, I feel a certain sense of loyalty,” Chau said. “I would like to do whatever I can to help out.”

The United States and Vietnam resumed diplomatic relations in 1995. Since then, U.S. trade with Vietnam has grown rapidly. In 1999, the U.S. private sector invested more than $120 million in Vietnam to become the seventh largest foreign investor there, according to the U.S. State Department. Last year, the United States and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement.

Because much of the country’s climate is similar to Florida’s, an exchange could provide Florida researchers with a laboratory abroad for studying topics such as tropical fruit production, pest control and small-farm systems, Holsinger said. The Vietnamese university would benefit by sending students to UF for advanced degrees, said Chau.

An exchange with Vietnam also could provide Florida with diverse varieties of tropical fruits and other food products, said team member Chris Deren, a professor at UF’s Everglades Research and Education Center who specializes in rice production and visited Southeast Asia 30 years ago.

Some team members had connections with Vietnam before joining the new cooperative effort. Several served in the military. Others went to Southeast Asia as part of UF’s earlier partnership with the Vietnamese university. Many say they feel motivated to aid a nation in peace that they and the United States had known largely at war.

Team member Hugh Popenoe was involved in the earlier partnership. Beginning in 1965, he helped UF train 40 military personnel to be agricultural agents. Later, under a U.S. Agency for International Development contract, UF was responsible for turning the university’s theoretical classroom environment into a practical agricultural experience.

UF’s involvement was so extensive that at one point, 10 department chairs and an assistant dean visited the Vietnamese university to coordinate the work.

Popenoe observed sustainable agricultural practices on a small-farm basis, as Vietnamese farmers struggled to achieve maximum efficiency from limited resources. The farmers integrated various agricultural operations and efficiently utilized waste.

“Asians have evolved these very sophisticated systems of combining animals, crops and aquaculture,” said Popenoe, now director of UF’s Center for Tropical Agriculture. Today, Florida farmers could learn much from Vietnamese sustainable agricultural practices, Popenoe said.

During the Vietnam War, Jim Selph was a U.S. Army first lieutenant who became an agricultural agent. He helped Vietnamese in small villages with everything from livestock production to self-defense. But the collapse of South Vietnam ended the effort, and Selph returned to the United States, eventually becoming a livestock agent in the Desoto County Extension Office.

He said he looks forward to again offering his expertise in livestock to the Vietnamese.

“I would like to go back,” said Selph. “It would be interesting to see what has transpired in 30 years.”