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Global Seminar

My Reflection on “America’s War in Vietnam”

By Claire Chiu ’19

Today was our last official ‘‘class’’ of the seminar, and at the very end, our professor (the #1 hero Atul Kohli) had us share our thoughts on the seminar: what we learned, what the best experiences were, what the worst experiences were, etc. What resulted was perhaps the best bonding moment of the seminar — an hour of honesty, reflection and thanks, as we looked back on the past six weeks.

Personally, I came into this seminar, a course entitled ‘‘America’s War in Vietnam,’’ knowing embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. What I DID know came from the movie ‘‘Forrest Gump’’ and my 11th grade U.S. History class (but mostly from ‘‘Forrest Gump’’). I could not have told you why the war was fought, who was involved besides the Vietnamese and Americans, which side was communist, or what on earth Ho Chi Minh did. Now, six weeks later, I can answer not only all of those questions (in case you were wondering, Ho Chi Minh led the communist North), but also tell you what the United States’ changing rationales for staying in the war were, whether they were justified, how the different presidents handled the war, and the differing perspectives on the war.

This isn’t an attempt to boast, nor am I now an expert on the Vietnam War. But it’s a testament to how much I (and everyone else on my seminar) have learned throughout these past six weeks. Being an engineering student, almost all of the classes I took freshman year were STEM-based. Life revolved around aggressively remembering that F = ma and V = IR, or that mergesort has a runtime of O(N log N), and forgetting a semicolon in your Java code really is the end of the world. And while an engineering education has its own merits, I think in pursuing one, I had lost my grasp on the humanities. I came from a hyper-competitive high school in the Silicon Valley where math and science reigned supreme, and people really only took AP Literature or AP U.S. History because of the “AP” label, not to learn the material more rigorously. I didn’t really believe in the value of humanities, as much as I wanted to — what’s the point in learning about the Vietnam War? It’s not like you’re going to walk on the streets and flash off your knowledge about the Tet Offensive.

But I can honestly say this class has made me think critically about the world, question American government and policies, and made a bigger impact on me as a person than any math, physics or computer science class I have ever taken. Which isn’t a knock on STEM — those classes have pushed me and taught me to problem-solve in a different way than this course, and I still plan to graduate with an engineering degree. But there is such a human element to the humanities that I don’t personally get from STEM courses, and that I didn’t realize I was missing until I took this course. It feels so darn good to know enough about a subject that I can formulate my opinion on it and be able to have a discussion where I’m not just blindly accepting everyone’s viewpoints. To be able to tell someone not just what happened in the war, but WHY it happened and whether I think the American leaders’ decisions helped or harmed. To be able to make connections between what happened in the war and what we should learn from it. To be able to apply what I’ve learned on this seminar to conversations that I have in daily life …

Claire Chiu is a sophomore computer science major from Fremont, California. To finish reading Chiu’s blog or to read other PIIRS Global Seminars blogs, visit piirs.globalseminar.princeton.edu