Young teacher returning to Vietnam to teach music at international school

FARGO -- Chelsea Kerbaugh, a teacher who grew up in a tiny North Dakota town with a population of 20, is moving to a city with a population of 8 million. She couldn't be happier. Just two months after returning from Vietnam, where she taught Engl...
Chelsea Kerbaugh, center, with some of her students on her last of teaching on May 19, 2016, at Le Hong Phong Gìfted High School in Nam Dinh City in Vietnam. Special to The Forum

FARGO - Chelsea Kerbaugh, a teacher who grew up in a tiny North Dakota town with a population of 20, is moving to a city with a population of 8 million. She couldn't be happier.

Just two months after returning from Vietnam, where she taught English at Le Hong Phong Gìfted High School in Nam Dinh City on a Fulbright scholarship, the 24-year-old woman from Prosper, N.D., will start a job teaching music at the Singapore International School in Hanoi.

"I get to do my dream job every day and live in a different culture," she says. "Now I'm going to move to a city the size of New York. It's very fast-paced, and you never know what's going to happen next. I love it."

Kerbaugh's first experience in Asia was on a two-week trip with her college wind ensemble in China. Something about it stuck with her, and before graduating from Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., with a degree in instrumental and vocal music education, she started looking for opportunities to return.

"It was my first time going to Asia, and I fell in love with it," she says of her trip to China. "I knew when I was in the airport in China that I really wanted to come back to this area. It's fascinating, it's growing, it's really interesting. There's just a lot happening."

Kerbaugh's environmental biology professor, Alyssa Anderson, a previous Fulbright scholar herself, suggested she apply to the prestigious program, which offers research, study and teaching opportunities in over 140 countries to recent graduates and graduate students.

The intensive application process took almost a year start to finish, during which time she graduated from NSU and started teaching music in Warner, S.D. In May 2015, she found out she was one of 14 teachers from across the U.S. chosen to teach English and act as U.S. ambassadors in Vietnam. She's the first Fulbright scholar from NSU.

The scholars first met during a weeklong orientation in Washington, D.C., and spent their first month in Vietnam together in Hanoi for additional orientation.

"We formed a really close bond right away," she says. "They were my support group for a year. When things are rough in a rural area, and you need someone to talk to, they were always there."

Once Kerbaugh settled into her new home and started learning conversational Vietnamese, she also bonded with her Vietnamese counterparts and students, which helped break down any preconceived notions they might have had about Americans.

"I had a student tell me she had a bad impression of foreigners until she met me," she says. "She said, 'I definitely have changed my mind about foreigners, especially Americans, since meeting you.' That's the purpose of the program - is to have this mutual cultural exchange."

Marla Fogderud, a voice teacher at NSU, says Kerbaugh is a role model for those back home, too. Fogderud says Kerbaugh was always a go-getter and a leader, but that she saw her really "open up and blossom" over the past couple years, through student teaching, applying for the Fulbright scholarship, fulfilling the requirement and now returning to Asia.

"I think she is proving that we've got some great people coming out of North Dakota," she says. "I'm really proud of her for expanding her horizons, taking risks and stepping outside the norm."

For Kerbaugh, living in Vietnam just might be the new norm. With her new job at the Singapore International School, she has a two-year-minimum contract. She says if she likes it, she'll stay, despite the reactions she gets.

"When I tell people I'm from a town of 20 people, they're in shock that I ended up in Vietnam," she says with a laugh.