Student Feature: Thu Anh Le

December 16, 2019

My journey to the Oral History program and Columbia was almost accidental. I had been doing some social advocacy work in my home country, Vietnam. The organization that I founded, Human Library Vietnam, sought to bring in people of marginalized identities and engage with the public as human “books.”  My work there bore many resemblances to the practice of oral history, and when I found out that Columbia offers an Oral History Master’s degree (OHMA) in something that resonates deeply with my work and ethics, I was immediately captivated. The program is truly unique; in fact, it is the first of its kind in the US and offers interdisciplinary education and training that will help me move forward in my career and activism. Moreover, Columbia is situated in New York, a city of wonderful people and opportunities, making it the perfect choice for me as a recent college graduate.

I have had a deep interest in Vietnamese Studies since I first came to the US as a 16-year-old. At that point, I began to develop an interest in history, but I realized that there was little to no mention of Asian history in my high school’s curriculum. In college, I was a History major and East Asian Studies minor, yet I still felt like something was missing—there was only one seminar on Vietnamese history every two years, and the professor who taught that class was, in fact, an expert on Chinese history. This lack of representation and scholarly interest in Vietnam pushed me to focus on Vietnam for my graduate work in the Oral History Master’s program at Columbia, from a perspective that goes beyond the Sinosphere of influence and considers a postcolonial framework. I want to contribute to the growth of Vietnamese Studies however I can, and my work at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, where I am helping to develop an oral history of the Institute, is a wonderful opportunity.

I knew about WEAI before I entered Columbia because of the Institute’s incredible scholarship on East Asia and other parts of Asia, including Vietnam. My work with the Institute is part of my academic program, which allows me to bring my knowledge of oral history into practice by designing a large-scale project. The Institute has introduced me to great people, including Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen, an amazing subject for my own oral history project, and opened my eyes to different ways to expand Vietnamese studies. My time at the Institute has also convinced me that WEAI deserves its own oral history. There is such a wealth of stories from everyone who has been involved with it over the years, and each personal anecdote is a part of the fascinating larger memory that should be preserved for generations to come. While the public milestones of the Institute’s history are well documented, an oral history project will help fill in the gaps by preserving the unwritten, and by bringing years of individual and collaborative efforts to life. 

I feel that I have a skill that is integral to both my academic work and my work here at WEAI—the ability to listen. I love to listen and believe that there is a crucial story within every single one of us.