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A Special Mentoring Partnership

Lovely young Vietnamese woman and older American woman, both looking engaging in red

Mary Behrens (r), Post-master FNP '98 and member of the Friends of the Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing development board, has a special relationship with Vietnamese nurses, having traveled to Vietnam many times to teach nurses under a humanitarian project called "Friendship Bridge." In 2012, a Vietnamese student named Hanh Luu Nguyen (l) graduated from our Basic BSN nursing program. Mary and Hanh Luu first met this spring 2013. Here is their story...


First meetings

"I was pleased when Claire Hitchcock contacted me that Hanh Luu Nguyen had just graduated from the University of Wyoming School of Nursing and was now working in Casper," says Mary Behrens. "Claire thought I would enjoy meeting her. It was a surprise to learn that Hanh Luu grew up very close to the university and hospital I teach at in Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh has millions of people spread out over many districts so it was amazing that she knew exactly where I taught and was familiar with the large teaching hospital next door."

Behrens started traveling to Vietnam for the first time in 1995 to help teach nurses under a Humanitarian Project called “Friendship Bridge.” Mary says she did not speak Vietnamese and her students were struggling with English. She had to get her travel visa from Canada since the US did not have diplomatic relations yet. "It was Scary yes, Adventure some, and full of unknowns," says Behrens. "When I think of Hanh Luu and her travel to the States—these same words come to mind."

Hahn Luu's trip from Vietnam to America was indeed as much of a culture shock as the opposite trip was for Behrens -- with the exception of the language barrier, since Hanh Luu Nguyen Duc says she always liked her “ABCs”. "Her English is excellent," said Behrens. "It takes a very strong person to learn another language and pass a test in middle high school to qualify to come over 9000 miles the United States. The Vietnamese language is very tonal so for someone like myself with no singing voice it makes speaking Vietnamese very difficult." Hanh knows she can help Mary in Vietnam, though at this point would be helpful mainly with her translation abilities: "Ever since I met Mary and heard of the work she is doing for the nurses in Vietnam, I wanted to become involved. I hope that I will be able to join her on one of her trips to Vietnam in the near future. Unfortunately I will not this year since I am waiting to hear regarding my work visa. Until I achieve higher education in nursing in the next few years, I can only come along and learn by observation and hopefully help Mary with the language barrier. I know that I still have a long way to go until I can do what Mary is doing right now for my country."

So back to the "culture shock" for Hanh Luu upon her trip to America: she told Behrens that she landed in Minneapolis St. Paul Airport and thought, “This will be a great big city." That is the perspective she had even though coming from Ho Chi Minh City, which has over 7 million people. "Hanh had a very long flight of over 24 hours from Vietnam to Minnesota," said Behrens, "so she fell asleep in the car. When she woke up a few hours later---all she saw were cornfields and countryside!" Hanh ended up living with a lovely American family in a community with a population of two thousand people. She subsequently graduated from high school there; then came to Laramie, Wyoming to earn her Baccalaureate of Nursing degree from the University of Wyoming. 

Busy, but determined to connect

Mary and Hanh Luu are both busy individuals with Hanh Luu working two jobs in Casper and Mary traveling extensively, but the times they get together are treasured by Hanh Luu: "Looking at what Mary has done and achieved so far has given me a lot of encouragement and boosted my spirit. Each time we meet, she has assured me that in the future she believes that I will be able to play a big role in using my education that I received in the States, and that I will be able to bring it back home and utilize it with the nurses in Vietnam. This gives me confidence that I can make a difference. I am very blessed to be a nurse because I see the difference I make in life each day, and I am sure that Mary feels the same."  Behrens adds, "When Hanh Luu goes back to Vietnam she will have much to offer the nursing world there. Much progress has been made since 1995 but much more work needs to be done. Friendship Bridge is now teaching Masters classes, and I have watched the quality of nursing education improve. Right now nurses have a very large patient load in the hospitals and there is a great need for more nurses and qualified instructors."

Since the two are so busy, Mary's plans for Hanh Luu to attend a Wyoming Nurses Association District meeting are still a work in progress. Hanh Luu says, "I would like to join the nursing associations that Mary has been trying to get me to attend, but I have not yet had the chance to do so. I think it would be a great opportunity for networking and for lifelong learning experiences." But in spite of the time crunch, Hanh Luu has invited Mary and her husband over for supper. Behrens comments, "There are not many Vietnamese restaurants in Wyoming and Hanh Luu is an excellent cook. She made Crispy Vietnamese Spring rolls and Banh Xeo (A Vietnamese crepe filled with vegetables and seafood) and other Vietnamese specialties. I hope to become brave enough to try cooking some Vietnamese food for Hanh Luu."

The impact of a mentor

Hanh Luu says that Mary has given her inspiration for her future. "Mary, a foreigner to my country, is able to go across the world and help the nurses in Vietnam gain their education. As a Vietnamese I want to be a part. Therefore, I am pursuing higher education so that I can be involved in the program and help teach those nursing students in Vietnam. I also hope to participate in international medical mission if my work schedule allows me.

We all look forward to the "second chapter" of this story!  Stay tuned...


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