by Fr Silvio Roggia, SDB
Dalat and Saigon are two ‘university cities’ in Vietnam, with many faculties and a large number of students coming from all over the country, seeking accommodation to carry on their studies. What has been the response of the Salesians present in both cities to this situation?
We begun helping students to organize themselves in small communities (from 10 to 30 students in each group), looking for places that they can rent and adjust as their own common house, both in Dalat and in Saigon. These locations are not owned by the Salesians. Several of them are rented out by friends we contacted through our parishes. There are no major restructuring work done. Simply we look for apartments or places where students can arrange a space for bunk beds, a space for a kitchen and a dining/living room as well as a space as study room. Then we help the students to organize themselves for their daily life: timetable, buying provisions, cooking, cleaning… By themselves, they take care of all what is needed for their living. This is already a very positive exercise of responsibility and cooperation. On average, such a solution makes them spend half or even less than what is requested by other accommodation facilities in town. In this way, children from relatively poor family backgrounds can also afford university studies. The Salesian communities in the North of Vietnam (Ha Noi) have also started this program for the last three years. Fruits did not delay to show up: two of their young are going to enter the one-year program before prenovitiate in these coming months.
Your main goal is to help young people even from poor neighbourhoods or from the countryside to have access to tertiary institutions.
Not exactly, or, better still, not only. That is just the first step of our Salesian work with these youths. In fact, our main goal is not to provide accommodation. Actually, they take care by themselves of all their expenses. Our goal is to accompany them. There is an intensive programme of youth animation, with a physical base and reference in our Salesian Youth Centres in the two cities, in which these students are actively involved. This is what first of all we propose and offer to them: to come to live such a kind of special community and Salesian experience during their university studies. We choose carefully only the students who are interested and agree with these proposals. They come with a clear commitment, one by one, fully aware of what it takes to follow such a path. As you can see, the accommodation is not the main goal.
Vietnam is home to almost 100 million people, and Catholics are around the 7% of the total population. Are these students all Catholics?
We have two proposals that we present clearly from the start. Both of them are aimed to help the holistic growth of these youth, and not just to offer a place where to stay. Therefore for all of them there are quite many activities in which they are involved, beside their serious commitment in their studies. A FIRST programme is open to boys and girls who accept this kind of commitment, and they belong to different religious traditions, including Catholics. This already gives a chance of growing in tolerance, mutual knowledge and respect, interreligious dialogue, which is not a little achievement in our society. A SECOND programme is for young male Catholics who are interested to be accompanied during their university studies in a process of vocational growth, strengthening their faith and preparing themselves for a life of intense Christian commitment in response to God’s call, considering also consecrated life as a possible way forward for their future. This year, for instance, in Dalat we have around 200 students following the first path, and around 50 following the second, focused on personal vocational growth and discernment. The transferring of a number of those male students in the first program to the second one has been a natural process from the beginning of these programs.
This experience has been going on for several years. Can you say that it is bearing good fruits?
By God’s grace surely it does, in both the ways I mentioned. Most of the students who passed through this kind of experience are very committed not only in their professional field, but also in society. Among the Catholics who followed the vocational path, many have become lay leaders in their Christian communities, several joined the diocese as priests, not a few are now members of various religious Congregations, and also a meaningful number every year ask to become Salesian of Don Bosco. This year, for instance, we have 19 prenovices and 32 doing the year of preparation to the prenovitiate, and the very large majority of these youth come from this university students animation experience.
Fr Joseph, if you have to summarize in few words the ‘secret’ behind this original way of being present among young people during their university studies, what would you say?
Intensive group and personal Salesian accompaniment: that’s what makes the difference.