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Người đăng: lthieu - Ngày: 6/1/2016 9:08:00 AM
From duck boy to university professor: a story of Vietnamese perseverance

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A once famished boy from the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap has defied all odds to become a university professor with a doctorate in mathematics.

At the age of 31, Dr. Le Trung Hieu, a professor at Dong Thap University in the namesake province, has already had five of his studies published in internationally-recognized scientific journals, and twice received national awards for the most outstanding scientific research in Vietnam.

Speaking with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper about Hieu, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Van De, rector of Dong Thap University, said, “He’s in every way a singular student.”

Going to school with an empty stomach

In a curious coincidence, Hieu was born and raised in Truong Xuan Commune, Thap Muoi District in Dong Thap, a place famous for its lotus, the flower that represents dignity and perseverance in overcoming difficult circumstances.

Hieu’s father left for another woman when his mother was pregnant with him, and it was not until Hieu was four or five years old that he met his father for the first and last time on a trip to his father’s hometown.

Not surprisingly the young man’s memories of his father are vague compared to the vivid images he recalls of his mother, Huynh Thi Phu.

“My family was impoverished. Mom single-handedly raised me and my older brother, while looking after our blind grandmother at the same time. She could barely put food on the table for all of us despite working day and night. However, despite all that, it angered her every time we considered dropping out of school,” Hieu recounted.

Hieu’s eyes turn red at the mention of his mother Phu. He said he could never forget how she had once climbed up tamarind trees at midnight to pick the fruit to sell at the market the next morning.

On one occasion Phu narrowly escaped death after she even fell face-down from a tree, resulting in her front teeth sinking deep into her jaws.

“She would raise a sounder of swine all year to earn extra money from selling piglets. On nights when the pigs delivered offspring, she would stay up all night. I once came home to the sight of a creditor yelling abuse at her. I knew, even though mom never mentioned it in front of us, that we were in huge debt,” Hieu said.

Despite all the hardship, Phu forbade her sons from ever considering dropping out of school, as she knew education was the only way for them to lead better lives than her own.

“There were times when we ran out of rice. Hieu went to school with an empty stomach but didn’t say a word. He went to the fields after school and brought home some cassavas for us to eat,” Phu recalled.

Duck herding in summer

“When he was in sixth grade, Hieu went without my permission to a local duck breeder and asked to herd the ducks during the summer for money. His ‘salary’ for herding 1,000 ducks in three months was 20 bushels [540 kilograms] of rice,” Phu said.

It was no easy task for an 11-year-old to herd a flock of 1,000 ducks, and Hieu was often told off by the paddle field owners when his ducks got out of control and ate their grain.

After three consecutive summers of doing the job, Hieu was able to provide his family with enough rice to last for years.

Hieu always carried a pocket English dictionary with him, a gift from his brother, so he could learn a few words whenever he had free time on his hands.

Hieu said he had not known how to pronounce the words, but by looking at them over and over, he had gradually memorized their meanings.

“Back-to-school days were terrifying for me personally, as my hair was always burnt out after spending the summer under the sun, and my hands were blackened. It was pretty embarrassing,” Hieu recalled.

Against all the odds, Hieu became a math genius who always topped his class in the subject and was one of the most outstanding math students in provincial contests.

Dr. Le Trung Hieu (L) during a lesson at Dong Thap University in Dong Thap Province. Photo: Tuoi Tre

A happy ending

After graduating from high school, Hieu applied for pedagogical studies at university, a discipline free of tuition fees in Vietnam, knowing that his mother would not be able to afford his higher education otherwise.

On being accepted by two universities, Hieu opted for Dong Thap University, the less prestigious of the two, simply because it was closer to his home so he could visit his sick grandmother more often.

“My grandmother was already very weak, and it would have cost us more to study farther away from home. Grandma died when I was in my freshman year,” Hieu confessed.

To provide for his own education, Hieu worked part-time as a stevedore, waiter, and private tutor throughout his years at university.

Hieu’s mother said he would visit home every week, crossing 50 kilometers on a bicycle after midnight because his schedule was always so full.

“He would listen to some English music or materials on the way to not waste any time. It was always before dawn that he arrived home and it always filled me with tears to open the door and see him drenched in sweat,” Phu said.

Hieu finished his doctorate degree in two years and four months, and is now teaching math at Dong Thap University.

Hieu received national awards in 2013 and 2015 for his two mathematic works.

Five of his published works completed during his doctorate fellowship at the University of Science, Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, have been verified by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), the United States, and one by the Mathematic Review (MR).

According to Prof. Tran Van Nhung at Vietnam National University-Hanoi, the ISI standard is a widely acknowledged evaluation system when it comes to the scientific value of researchers.

Hieu's doctorate thesis was considered excellent by the reviewers’ council.

Now with a family of his own, Hieu is enjoying his well-deserved happiness with his wife Nguyen Thi Bich Thuan, his classmate in university who shared a similar story.

“Thuan caught my attention when I noticed that she always wore the same worn-out shoes to class. An excellent student herself, Thuan was also offered a job at our university after graduation. Our daughter is two years old now,” Hieu said.

Dr. Le Trung Hieu, his wife Nguyen Thi Bich Thuan, and their daughter on the day Hieu received his doctorate degree. Photo: By courtesy of Le Trung Hieu