By Raechel Dawson
For the Reporter
Thirteen students shivered as they stood huddled around a man speaking Vietnamese, a translator nearby. Boxes of fruit from around the world, stacked on shelves, towered over the group. Someone pointed out a carton of apples from the United States.
This was what it was like to stand in a refrigerator the size of a warehouse, some undoubtedly thought.
But those students, hailing from three Washington state community colleges, were not standing in a large refrigerator — at least not in the literal sense. They were standing in the building of Kho lạnh Năm Châu (Nam Chau Cold Storage), a company located on the outskirts Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam that specializes in leasing cold storage and kiosks for perishable goods.
The students were there to get a first-hand account of what happens to Washington state apples once they’re exported from an orchard to another country.
They were there to follow the supply chain.
Launched in September 2019, the Follow the Supply Chain Study Abroad Program held its fourth year with its second trip to Vietnam from Sept. 8-19 thanks to a partnership with the Highline College-based Center of Excellence for Global Trade and Supply Chain Management, Highline College, North Seattle College, Tacoma Community College and Wenatchee Valley College.
“Vietnam is a great destination for the program because it has become more central to global supply chains, has become a key economic partner for Washington state and there is a large Vietnamese-American population in Washington, including in the Highline service area,” said Sam Kaplan, director of the Center of Excellence for Global Trade and Supply Chain Management. “As companies diversify out of China, Vietnam has become one of the central locations for assembly and manufacturing, including recently by Apple and Samsung. Vietnam is now the second largest importer through the Northwest Seaport Alliance and second largest destination for air cargo through SeaTac.”
Kaplan, along with staff and faculty from the aforementioned colleges, founded the program to provide a hands-on, practical learning opportunity for students that focused on supply chains but was also accessible to those who may not be able to afford it. Highline College’s Jenn Ritchey was also instrumental in helping create the program and organize trips to Vietnam.
“Since there are 170,000 jobs in the global trade and supply chain sector in Washington state, providing the talent for tomorrow is crucial to its continued success,” Kaplan said, noting that students only had to pay $500 each for the Vietnam trip while sponsors Lynden International, the University of Washington Center of Global Affairs, and the University of Washington Center for International Business, Education and Research funded the rest.
This year, students from Highline College, North Seattle College and Tacoma Community College followed two products in the supply chain — one exported to Vietnam (Washington apples) and another imported from Vietnam (Brooks Running shoes). Yet the program began long before students boarded the 12-plus hour flight to Southeast Asia.
Over the summer, students visited CMI Orchards in Wenatchee, Washington to tour their packaging facility and learn more about Washington’s apple industry, which, according to the Washington Apple Commission, is the largest in the United States.
“It is a complicated supply chain using high technology, container ports, refrigerated storage and more,” Kaplan said of the apple industry, adding that many apples are grown in Wenatchee, where one of the college partners is located.
Students also visited Brooks Sports Inc. headquarters in Seattle to learn about footwear design and development; social, environmental and trade compliance; and logistics before traveling to Vietnam to tour the company’s shoe factory.
“The factory they use in Vietnam moved from China around 2013 or 2014, reflective of changes that were happening in global supply chains that have only accelerated since then,” Kaplan said. “The shoe supply chain is a great illustration, including sourcing, transportation and logistics, trade compliance, sustainability and many other factors.”
One of the students on the trip, Heidi Major, who is now an alumna of Highline College and currently studies Hospitality Management at Central Washington University, said the entire experience was “eye-opening.”
“I think the complexity of the shoe assembly for Brooks Running shoes and how they put it together made me look at shoes in a new light,” the Renton resident said. “As soon as I got home, I pulled out my own pair of Brooks shoes and looked at them a little differently.”
In addition to the cold storage facility and shoe factory, students had a busy schedule of visiting Foreign Trade University where they learned about the infrastructure of Vietnam’s supply chain logistics, heard from an environmental speaker with CHANGE, attended the U.S. Consulate, visited Ho Chi Minh City International University, toured a Wholesale-Import Market at night, wore hard hats on a tour at SP-SSA International Terminal (SSIT) – a port similar to our local Port of Seattle, swam in the South China Sea in Vung Tau, and rode on two boats and a tuk tuk while on a tour around the Mekong Delta to see coconut and brick factories in action.
“The Mekong Delta was a fantastic experience,” said Seattle resident Blaine Relatado. “That was the time when I learned more and deeper about Vietnamese culture. I also got an idea of possible businesses related to coconuts since my family owns a farm in the Philippines.”
Relatado is currently studying for his bachelor’s degree in International Business at North Seattle College, however, is now interested in seeking an internship position that works with the supply chain for various local companies.
Jennifer Jones, a Highline College instructor who teaches geography, global studies and social policy, has herself been impacted by the trip and plans to incorporate more information about Vietnam in her Geography 120 class, including adding an emphasis on the importance Vietnam has become to the global economy in terms of manufactured items (shoes and clothing) as well as agricultural products (Vietnam is the No. 1 producer of cashews, No. 1 exporter of black pepper, No. 2 producer of coffee after Brazil). She also plans to include an explanation of why Vietnam has concerns about the increasing militarization of China, specifically in the “vital waterways that people rely on for fishing and trade.”
“It is amazing that Highline and the Center for Excellence are giving students this wonderful opportunity to travel and learn about another culture,” Jones said. “Traditional study abroad programs are often a semester or year long and are limited to students with the resources to finance international travel on their own. This unique program enables a wider variety of students to participate because it is short-term, and not based solely on personal or family financial resources.”
Jones also hopes and expects students gained a new perspective on the world and their place in it.
“I think that the students are already using the experience in Vietnam to visualize what their future careers could be in new ways,” she said. “During the trip, students were talking about how what they had learned encouraged them to think about running a global business, taking a job at a port, focusing on climate and the environment or joining the struggle to improve worker rights and working conditions both in the U.S. and around the world.”
Highline College students Faris Faris and Emily Hamilton agree.
“I got the opportunity to live the supply chain in reality,” Faris, a Federal Way resident who is studying for his bachelor’s degree in Global Trade and Logistics, said. “Adding this program to my resume will be very beneficial.”
“This has most definitely helped me to prepare more for my future,” Hamilton, also a Federal Way resident who is studying for her bachelor’s in Global Trade and Logistics, said. “The trip to Vietnam, the workshops, lectures, and networking has helped to confirm I am in the field I want to be in. There is a lot of work to do in Global Logistics, and I am excited to be entering a field where I can make a difference.”
Kaplan said there is a lot of opportunity for the Follow the Supply Chain Study Abroad Program’s future, which includes returning to the original intent of an annual program and trip to Vietnam — one less impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as potentially expanding the opportunity to students in other colleges.
“Our goal is to provide a life-changing experience and I have heard from many of the students that this was the case,” Kaplan said. “We had a great group of students who were actively engaged, helpful to each other and to the organizers. Our future is in good hands.”
Raechel Dawson is the associate director of communications for Highline College. For more information, visit highline.edu.