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Internships in Vietnam become unforgettable experience

A young Asian woman in a black dress, a young Asian man in a black t-shirt, an older woman in a purple-patterned dress, and a younger woman in an orange dress sit together in front of a green, leafy backdrop
From left to right: Pa Ying Lee, Yi Lu Lo, Jennifer Angus (Kay Vaughan Faculty Fellow of Design & Innovation and professor of Design Studies), and Tran Hong Nhung (founder and director of Zó Project)

Story by Maddie Kranz x’24, UW–Madison student studying Community & Nonprofit Leadership and Art History

This summer, two Human Ecology seniors traveled to Vietnam to learn about and work on product design and marketing with Zó Project. Established in 2013 in Suoi Co (Suối Cò), Zó Project supports papermaking families in Vietnam who are threatened by industrialization in their region. The families’ product, Dó paper, is a traditional handmade paper that has existed for more than 800 years. Zó Project is about more than just making paper, however. Its mission focuses on preserving the traditional Vietnamese papermaking process in a sustainable way that also provides cultural knowledge to the next generation of artisans.

Tran Hong Nhung, the founder and director of Zó Project, was preparing three new Dó paper collections when the interns arrived in June 2023. The collections were centered in batik (a type of fabric dyeing), historical landmarks and traditional folk paintings. Interns Pa Ying Lee and Yi Lu Lo engaged in both the mission of the organization and various projects through their work in design and marketing.

“What initially drew me to this internship was a class about global artisans with Professor Jennifer Angus,” Pa Ying said. “In that class, we worked with global artisans from multiple areas, and Zó Project was one of them. Just hearing the story was pretty cool, and then I learned from Jenny that there was an internship with the group.”

The course, Design Studies 527: Global Artisans, is taught by Jennifer Angus, Professor of Design Studies and Kay Vaughan Faculty Fellow of Design + Innovation, and is connected with the 4W Initiative’s Global Artisans Initiative. Students in the course use design thinking to develop hands-on skills working with artisan partners through design, branding, and storytelling. Professor Angus developed the internship with Zó Project in partnership with the International Internships team at UW–Madison’s International Academic Programs office.

Pa Ying is a Textiles & Fashion Design major, and she found that Zó Project’s design-based mission aligned naturally with her academic pursuits. As a Consumer Behavior & Marketplace Studies major, Zó Project’s internship gave Yi Lu an opportunity to further develop his marketing skills, but it caught his attention for another reason, too.

“I was searching for my Asian identity, and I was able to find part of that through my previous study abroad in Taiwan,” Yi Lu said. “I really wanted to explore more about myself and have an internship that was interesting.”

Putting theory into practice

School of Human Ecology courses prepared both interns for the work they took on at Zó Project. Pa Ying developed new designs for paper products, while Yi Lu created marketing videos and brochures.

A young Asian woman in a black top applies black dye to a stencil on a piece of canvas
Pa Ying designed covers for notebooks that contain Dó paper and are sold by Zó Project

“In another class with Professor Angus, we worked with Photoshop to make designs for textiles,” Pa Ying said. “The last two weeks at Zó Project, I applied those skills and worked on designing the covers for notebooks and greeting cards. I also prepared for an exhibition we had on the last day of the internship.”

For Yi Lu, he drew upon learnings from Consumer Science 555: Consumer Design Strategies & Evaluation, which allowed him to connect his background in consumer science to the more design-based elements of his internship projects. In this course, Yi Lu and his peers were challenged with increasing user engagement with the social media accounts of Von Maur, a Midwest-based retailer. Increased social media engagement leads to an increase in website engagement, where Von Maur sells its products.

“That previous experience really shaped my Zó Project internship — how I thought about a problem and solving it with the resources that were given to me,” Yi Lu said.

Exploring heritage and history

To understand how Dó paper is made, Pa Ying, Yi Lu and Tran Hong Nhung traveled to local artisans’ home villages throughout northern Vietnam. In the city of Sa Pa, the interns connected with Hmong Vietnamese individuals and observed the artisans as they worked with batik, one of the focuses of Zó Project’s new collections. As two Hmong Americans, the opportunity to immerse themselves in Vietnam’s Hmong culture was pivotal for Pa Ying and Yi Lu.

A young Asian woman in a long-sleeved black shirt, a young Asian man in a white t-shirt and backpack, a young Asian woman in a white tank top, and a young Asian woman in a red blouse stand together against a tan wall
From left to right: Pa Ying Lee, Yi Lu Lo, Tran Hong Nhung, and Nguyen Thi Do in Bac Ninh. Starting at just 12 years old, Nguyen Thi Do now has over 30 years of experience with traditional Dó papermaking.

“I met with the founder of Hemp & Embroidery,” Pa Ying said. “I learned more about Hmong people living in Vietnam and the founder’s future goals for her organization, one of which is to create a museum with artifacts from every group of Hmong. I think this is amazing, because there isn’t much written history about the Hmong. It was nice seeing Hmong people wearing Hmong clothes as their casual attire.”

When speaking with the Hmong Vietnamese that they met, Pa Ying and Yi Lu experienced linguistic similarities and differences between how Hmong is spoken in Vietnam and other countries.

Yi Lu met Hmong Chinese individuals for the first time and learned his assumptions that their regional dialect would be harder to understand were far off.

“When they spoke Hmong to me — I was astounded,” Yi Lu said “We were able to have a seamless conversation. That really helped my Asian identity, appreciating where I came from; appreciating my heritage.”

The School of Human Ecology’s focus on collaboration helped the interns navigate both their tasks and the cultural differences they encountered in Vietnam. From Zó Project’s home in Hanoi to the villages they visited, Pa Ying and Yi Lu were active listeners and attentive problem-solvers. Courses throughout Human Ecology’s disciplines helped them develop the skills they used in their internships. Human Ecology is dedicated to holistic education opportunities like these, which are supported by the school’s thoughtful donors.

Pa Ying and Yi Lu’s internships were made possible in part by the generous support of Nancy and David Borghesi. Through the 4W Global Artisans Catalyst Fund, they are helping to give students high-impact global learning experiences and foster collaboration with skilled artisans in Vietnam.