My First Trip to Asia & Learning about Education in Vietnam & Singapore

Published 05/14/2024 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Angelina Calderón | 05/14/2024

March 2024 will be a watershed moment in how I experience the world. My first trip to Asia with fellow Milken Scholar, Yalie and educator Marisol Leon opened up my mind to new adventures and new ways of seeing the role of government in supporting a country’s growth. While we took advantage of the opportunity to eat delicious food and sight see, throughout the trip we took time to learn about Education in Vietnam and Singapore.

In the 2022 administration of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Singapore and Vietnam surpassed the United States in Mathematics. Singapore remains the highest scoring country in Math, Reading and Science. As a Milken Scholar and as an educator on the quest to support students in my community, I understand the impact of a great education in someone’s life trajectory. I was interested in learning what we could learn that I could apply in supporting others to achieve their potential through education.

One of things that stood out the most is the actual space that schools occupy in Vietnam. In Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City, schools are embedded in the community and the buildings themselves highlight the importance placed on education for all children. On a short drive, we would see multiple schools along the main roads. Students come to school in uniform, white shirts with a necktie and blue bottoms. The buildings are well kept and host large play areas. This was definitely highlighted in one of the schools we visited, Le Quang Sung.

Le Quang Sung2

At the Primary School, Truong Tiey Hoc Nguyen Thi Lang, we saw lots of joy and play. One of things we learned is that school is not free in Vietnam, every level of education must be paid for by the family. There’s a difference in knowing that your family has to pay for schooling directly rather than it being paid by taxes. We also learn that during and after the war, there was a strong focus on Literacy and educating a majority of children that did not exist while Vietnam was under French control. I was surprised by how much of Vietnamese ingenuity and history is not taught in US schools as part of the history of the war. We would all benefit from learning about their successes during the war and their efforts to rebuild their nation after.

Singapore was a different experience altogether and we were privileged to have an insider’s introduction to education in Singapore. We met with Pin Qi Lee, Co-founder of Edm8ker, at a private school’s Community Lab. Pin Qi guided us into a brief introduction of Singapore’s education history, shared her personal experience growing up in Singapore and offered insight into opportunities to take student learning to the next level.

Community Lab

The community lab itself was on the East campus of United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) and offered a space for students to connect with community members and explore hands-on problem solving with real world implications.

As a fairly young and small country, Singapore’s rise in Education offers lots of lessons. According to UNESCO records, in 2022, the government spent 13.5% of its budget on Education, but in the past few decades there have been multiple years when about 20% of the budget was focused on Education. They have invested in human capital which has in turn built a stronger economy with an educated workforce.

Singapore has 4 official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. While there is an effort to maintain mother tongue and culture, English is taught as the dominant economic language. The families sending their students to Singaporean schools share the English language as part of their upbringing as well. Moreover, this forced opportunity for bilingualism allows students to further develop their brains in ways that many students in the US may not have the ability to do until well into their high school education. The focus on bilingualism and the parents’ shared experience with English as the dominant language are key differences in the experience of English learners I serve in Los Angeles versus students in Singapore.


One of the main themes that came across was the intentionality of the government. About 90% of Singaporeans live in subsidized housing and the government encourages family planning by offering more support for married couples than single citizens. As part of their efforts to strengthen social cohesion, each housing complex has ethnic quotas to avoid cultural/ethnic segregation. Of course, this does not mean that discrimination does not exist, but most people we spoke to had a strong attachment to Singaporean identity. Moreover, the fact that a family does not have to worry about their housing and basic necessities, allows students to have a huge advantage in their ability to concentrate in school.

The family experience in Singapore is largely focused on supporting children to achieve well in their exams. Some families will start taking their children to extra learning programs when they turn 3 or 4 years old. While the Ministry of Education has an initiative that “Every School is a good school”, families are aware that the school their students attend will impact their future. Student performance in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the end of 6th grade determines a student’s trajectory into middle school and beyond. We learned that some families will start volunteering at schools they deem the best, years before their student is of school age so they can receive preference in the enrollment process. It is also common for students to participate in “tuition programs” afterschool to prepare for the exams. The government does provide grants for students to learn outside of schools as well.

It’s important to acknowledge that performance in standardized testing is not the only way to measure success for an educational institution. One of the pillars of the network I work in is the holistic support we offer our students. The post pandemic era has highlighted the need for mindfulness programs and mental health support for students and families. When speaking to Nikki, an alumni of the international school, she highlighted the lack of support when she experienced bullying in the school. It inspired her to study psychology in college and hopes to help children with her career.

The greatest takeaways from this adventure was that education can be greatly impacted by government policies in housing, budgeting and focus on human capital. In both Vietnam and Singapore, there were efforts to increase literacy rates in a post colonial landscape. But beyond achieving high levels of literacy, they’ve focused on developing citizens with critical thinking skills and opportunities for social mobility through education.

I’m sure this will not be the last trip to Asia and I can’t wait to continue learning and applying what I learn to support others in reaching their potential through education.

Angelina Calderon and Marisol Leon2