Born into a Vietnamese family as the war ended, career development counsellor Phoenix Ho knew change at a very early age. She spent the first four years of her life in the Mekong Delta as her father and eldest brother attempted to flee the country, moving back to Ho Chi Minh City to live when they escaped, until she and the rest of the family could join them 10 years later.
“My dad was a political refugee to America,” she says. “He was a teacher and if he had stayed here [life would have been very difficult].” Now many years later, to Phoenix, change is what you make of it.
Arriving in America, the family were hit with culture shock and with the strangeness of seeing each other again. “It was like a dream come true to finally go, but reuniting was a big challenge,” she says. “My parents had been apart for so long and it was hard for all of us.”
While she enjoyed her life in the US, Phoenix also missed her home in Saigon.
“I think depression had always been in me, but moving to the US was definitely the trigger,” she says. “I form deep attachments to people and places and I am quite emotional by nature, so it was hard when I left and there was no proper goodbye.”
She returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2002 having just completed her first Masters, a degree in education.
“I had always wanted to come back and my partner at the time was in Vietnam, so I thought why not,” she says. “I also felt drawn to charity work. I began to sponsor a group of kids from District 7, a very poor area at the time.”
Unsure of how to help, she began by teaching them English.
“I never intended to help them make change in their life, it was about goodwill,” she says. “I thought English was most useful but I soon realised that what they really needed was to learn life skills — how to behave, manners, ethics, the moral lessons, etc.”
In 2003 Phoenix and her partner married, moving back to the US the following year. She continued her work with the kids while in America, leaving a good friend to run the project in Saigon, and it would be another six years before she made the move back to Vietnam.
“I had just finished my second Masters, in career counselling, and I was offered a job at RMIT,” she remembers. “My husband had always wanted to return, so we did.”
By the end of the first half of the year, the two had divorced. Looking back, Phoenix sees this separation as one of her biggest life lessons.
“Change happens for a reason,” she says. “The divorce gave me the skills to become a good counsellor, and because I am a good counsellor, I am now able to be a better partner.”
Many years later, Phoenix continues to live and work in Ho Chi Minh City, now managing the internal unit of the RMIT Career Centre and training aspiring career counsellors at Hon Viet. At RMIT, Phoenix and her team use a range of teaching programmes, individual counselling and consulting to help their students move from the education system to the workforce.
“We make sure students are ready for work and for life,” she says. “We give them the tools, passion and encouragement they need to help themselves.”
In her experience, students often face one of two main barriers when moving to the working world.
“The first is that they know exactly what they want but are afraid they will fail and don’t have their parents’ support, and the other issue is that people don’t know what they want to do because they never tried things out growing up,” she says. “I work to give them the message that it’s ok to try, to make mistakes, even to fail — the only thing that is not ok is to be passive.”
To her, these issues have a lot to do with parenting — Vietnamese young people will often allow their overprotective parents to make the decisions for them. Phoenix’s own experience of change has deeply informed the way she works with her students now.
“It has made me more empathetic, but also more firm,” she says. “I listen and care for my students, but I give them a very realistic idea of what’s reasonable and what is not. Young people often want independence without the responsibility that goes with it.”
She believes that any change can be good or bad depending on how you view it, using the ‘Planned Happenstance Theory’ to teach students on how to make change into a positive.
“The theory teaches us that something seemingly bad can be made into something good if we react to it with positivity and an open mind,” she says. “This will plant the seed for luck in our own future.”
At Hon Viet, Phoenix works with a group of recent graduates in education and counselling, training them in career counselling.
“If you do career counselling, career coaching or personal development education, it is important to have a background in psychology,” she says. “These young people have to learn to understand their clients’ situations properly in order to help with their life changes.”
Recently engaged, Phoenix looks forward to a full life with her new partner and her son Ian, and to continuing her work with the young people of Ho Chi Minh City.