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Yvonne Oberhollenzer - International Relations Coordinator, College of Economics, Vietnam National University, Hanoi

Yvonne Oberhollenzer
'Every day something comes up that either amazes me or frustrates me, but the fact that there's so much happening all the time is what makes it so much fun to live here.'

Yvonne speaks three languages fluently and three not-so-fluently. Vietnamese is one of the latter. Never one to let a challenge pass by, Yvonne has been living in Vietnam for 10 months with the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program and has learnt that some things transcend language barriers.



What does your job involve?

My job at the moment is managing all of the partnerships the College of Economics has with other universities around the world, as well as finding new partners.

Usually we partner in three different areas: in training, where we create joint training programs with international universities; in research, where we can create joint research teams; or in service provision, where we gather expertise from international and local sources to create new short courses in management and economics.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Bachelor of Arts with majors in political science and Spanish. I also have Honours in International Relations.

Are your qualifications relevant to your position?

Definitely. I think the most important thing that I got from my degree is the skill to critically analyse things and put together proposals very quickly. Without the training I had at university I think it would be very hard to do this job.

Why were you posted in Hanoi?

I chose this job, which happens to be in Vietnam. I applied for the position and didn't care which country I landed in. Other people will choose a country then look for a job within that country. The AYAD program is quite flexible.

What projects have you been involved in in Vietnam?

The big project I'm working on at the moment is with the Haas School of Business, which is at the University of California, Berkeley. We negotiated with the university to come here and provide advice on a new Bachelor of Business and Administration program. Their experts will provide the curriculum for the new program which will be taught in English by our lecturers in Vietnam. The second part of the project is to have a number of consultants from the Haas School of Business to come to Vietnam to provide a business plan for a business school to be built up within the college, that is a huge project which will take years. The point is to build up the college to have a high quality reputation.

What's the most important personal attribute required to do your job effectively?

Flexibility. Vietnamese culture is very different to Australian culture. There are lots of small things that differ between the cultures about how Vietnamese people say things and how I react. Open communication is important and a willingness to understand that people might not mean things in a bad way even though it might come across that way.

I also need patience because things run differently here. Sometimes they run in a slower time frame and sometimes they run much too fast, so it's necessary to have good time management skills and have the patience to deal with other people's lack of time management skills!

Have you had any difficulty with communication and language barriers?

Definitely. That's the big thing that I have to deal with. I work in an office where people speak English quite well. But outside of my office, no one really speaks English. I've had a lot of difficulty dealing with other faculties and departments, but I came up with this strategy where I talk to people via other people. I know who has the most influence over other departments so I'll talk to that person who will then talk to the others. That way I can get what I want without actually telling them directly to do something. I find that while people accept me as part of the team, I'm still the foreigner, so to have a local person talk to the locals makes a huge difference.

You speak three languages. Do you think this makes you more valuable to an employer?

I think languages help, but I wouldn't say that they are the defining factor for getting a job. I think that it's an added bonus if you have languages, but I wouldn't say that employers choose me specifically because I have language skills.

Do you have a good work-life balance?

Yes, I do a lot of travelling in my free time. In this past year I've travelled to Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The AYAD program provides us with one month of annual leave and the host organisation approves my leave whenever I want to go. I often work on weekends, but if I need to take a morning off, they are very happy to give me that flexibility. Most days I'm in the office from 8 am to 6 pm, they're the normal working hours here.

You've done quite a bit of travelling throughout your career. What was your favourite posting and why?

My favourite posting is Vietnam, because it is such a fascinating country! It's not really about the job; it's just the experience here. Every day something comes up that either amazes me or frustrates me, but the fact that there's so much happening all the time is what makes it so much fun to live here.

Do you have any cross-cultural disaster stories?

It's very typically Vietnamese to talk to each other about putting on weight and losing weight. I had heard my co-workers mention weight to each other and I thought it was a little strange, because in Australia we would never tell another person that they're fat. One day I was having lunch with all my colleagues and they were laughing and having fun but only speaking Vietnamese, so I could not understand anything they were saying. At the end of the lunch my director turned around to me and laughed, 'Yvonne, you've put on so much weight, you're so fat now'. I got quite upset by this and decided to speak to her about it. It turns out that in Vietnamese culture, if you like someone and get close to them, they say these things because they feel comfortable with you!

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