Today, the 29-year-old works as a preschool teacher in the town of Nam Lu, a small commune in the northern mountainous area of Vietnam. Like Kim’s own village, most of Nam Lu’s population lives below the poverty level, and around 20 percent are unable to read or write. While resources are extremely scarce, one of the the biggest challenges facing Nam Lu is its ethnically and linguistically diverse population.

“Many different ethnic minority groups live here, including Nung, Pa Di, H’Mong, Phu La and Kinh,” explains Kim, whose native language is Nung.

Students participate in a counting activity in Sung Thi Kim’s preschool class. (Photo: Jeremy Soulliere/Save the Children).
Though Vietnam has 54 ethnic minority groups, each with its own language, most schools in the country teach in Vietnamese, shutting out those who are unable to converse in the dominant tongue. 
This makes communication between groups difficult, and, according to the World Bank, has left many of Vietnam’s ethnic groups languishing in poverty despite rapid advancements in the country’s infrastructure and educational system. Ethnic minorities make up just 15 percent of the country’s population, but they account for 70 percent of its poor. This is evident in the community Kim serves in Nam Lu.

“Most of the families here do not have electricity and running water, and some get their water directly from the springs for their daily use,” she says. “The people here are farmers, tending to the rice and cornfields daily, and most only have a primary school education. Half of them are living in poverty, unable to afford enough food for their families, and it is very common for children to be malnourished.”

Despite the challenges, Kim is confident her commitment to education will help her students change the course of their future, particularly the girls. Though female students in Vietnam have equal access to education, poor families typically choose to invest their limited resources in boys.

“Girls are encouraged to attend schools like boys, and are encouraged to go to college. However, if a family is under financial strain or needs to prioritize the education of their children, they tend to give the boys the opportunity, [because they’re the ones] who will carry their family name forward,” Kim says.

Which is why she chooses to teach in a school supported by Save the Children, an international nonprofit that trains teachers and operates early education programs around the world and was recently spotlighted by the Upgrade Your World initiative.

The children in Kim’s preschool come from four villages, sometimes making long treks to the campus on unstable roads that worsen during Vietnam’s rainy season. Still, they brave the hazards because they know education is their ladder out of poverty - just as it was for Kim. 

“Education is critically important for children here, because when they go to school, they are immersed in an environment that motivates them to learn and be independent,” she says. “By actively communicating with their peers and participating in class activities, kids can build a rich vocabulary and learn fundamental skills that enable them to be successful in school and in life.”

Just like Kim’s teacher encouraged her to work hard and give back to her community, she hopes to impart the same message to her young students.

“I wanted to come back to my hometown because it was my hope that, through my daily efforts as a preschool teacher, I could contribute to the educational development of the commune and its future,” she says. “I want my students to remember their school, teacher, and friends, and the lessons they learned here. I also hope they can find a good job they love and come back to help their hometown in their own way.”