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Intel's Vietnamese scholars learn more than engineering at PSU
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: August 24, 2009


Khoa Tan Tran, one of 28 Vietnamese engineering students getting bachelor's degrees paid for by Intel, tries his hand at making a plastic mold in a manufacturing processes lab at Portland State University.

The assignment: Design and build an amplifier circuit that controls music volume, bass and treble.

Huong Ha, 21, had never done anything like it in her electrical engineering classes in Vietnam. Sure, she had studied the theory, but she had never had the chance to make one herself.

"The first time I heard a voice coming from my circuits, I was really happy," Ha said.

That's exactly why Intel is paying about $2 million for Ha and 27 other top Vietnamese students to get their engineering degrees at Portland State University over the next two years.

The computer giant is building its biggest assembly and test plant ever near Ho Chi Minh City, and it needs engineers with more problem-solving, teamwork, English and cultural skills than Vietnamese universities can provide.

The 500,000-square-foot factory is expected to start production next year and employ up to 3,500 people, including 800 to 900 engineers.

But Vietnamese universities aren't equipped to meet the company's needs, Rick Howarth, general manager of Intel Products Vietnam, wrote in an e-mail.

Sending students abroad for two years is expensive, but "we know that this is a vital part of the long-term success for Intel Vietnam," Howarth wrote.

Mechanical engineering students from Vietnam watch a welding demonstration in a lab at Portland State University. The students will be at PSU for two years getting their bachelor's degrees and then return to Vietnam to work at Intel's new assembly and test plant near Ho Chi Minh City.

PSU, which supplies more graduates to Intel Oregon than any other university, is known for teaching students to apply theory to real-world problems, he wrote.

The estimated annual cost of attending PSU for an out-of-state undergraduate - including tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, transportation and other expenses - is $32,193.

Selection standards were so high that Intel accepted only 28 from a pool of 400 applicants.

"These are the best of the best in terms of engineering," said Kevin Foster, an Intel recruiter and the company's representative to the program in Oregon. "They are really a special group, and we want to make sure they know that."

After the students return to Vietnam, they must work for Intel for at least three years, a requirement that the students see as a privilege.

"An obligation to work for the best company for three years is great," said Khoa Tan Tran, 22.

Tran grew up in a village in southern Vietnam so small he said he could circle it in five minutes on a motorcycle.

When he found out he was accepted to the Intel program, he said he called about 15 friends and relatives, including his father, a furniture maker.

"My dad is the happiest person. He is so proud of me," said Tran, who learned a lot of his English by watching cable TV.

This summer, the students are getting an intense introduction to life at PSU.

They live in dorm rooms, eat in the dining hall and take English, culture and engineering classes specially designed to fill in gaps and prepare them for regular classes in the fall.

For fun, they like to explore the Portland area. Favorites are the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, the Park Blocks and the Washington Park rose garden.

One recent English class focused on reduced forms of words in rapid casual speech, such as "Whaddaya" instead of "What do you."

"This is what you're gonna hear in your classes and on the street," said their instructor, Carla Mortensen.

Intel gave them all laptops and connected them with mentors and a Vietnamese-American employee group for sightseeing trips and other social events. They'll also have training sessions at Intel in Hillsboro throughout the next two years.

They spend much of their time in class and studying, but they often unwind by playing online video games such as World of Warcraft in the computer lab late at night, when they won't disturb other students.

One of their biggest challenges has been getting used to the food here. Ha and two other students took a dining hall chef to an Asian market and pointed out what the students like to eat.

Since then, the dining hall has regularly offered rice, fish sauce and chili and sometimes serves Vietnamese dishes.

At one lunch this month, many students had a bowl of rice and fish sauce along with standard cafeteria fare, including chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, potato chips and pizza.

Tran, dipping his nuggets in fish sauce, said it is hard to find a really good job in Vietnam.

"Especially the opportunity work in an international environment like Intel," added his roommate, Tinh Tran, 21.

Later, in a manufacturing processes lab, Duc Le, a 21-year-old from northern Vietnam, said the best thing about the Intel program is the chance to study in the United States.

Vietnamese companies prefer to hire students who have studied abroad because "they are very confident and professional in working," he said.

Ho Chi Minh City is hotter and more crowded than Portland, he said. PSU's facilities are better than those at his former university, Portland is more modern, and the people are friendly, Le said.

Eight students are studying mechanical engineering, and 20 are studying electrical engineering.

Ha, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student from southern Vietnam, is one of four women in the program. She said she's used to being far outnumbered by men. In her 64-student program in Vietnam, she was one of only three women.

She said she was "very, very surprised" when she was admitted to the program. She's not confident about speaking English, and she thought her answers sounded stupid in her interview.

She was so upset that she went back to class and announced to her friends that she had failed.

Her father grows rice and raises pigs, and her mother sells rice out of their home. Before coming to Portland, she shared a rented room with four other students in Ho Chi Minh City, where she attended a university.

"The life of a farmer is not stable," she said. "I want to study hard to make my future better and to help my father and mother."