Reunited in Vietnam

Two alums reconnect on the other side of the globe after five decades apart.
By Jeremy Carroll


Read time: 3 minutes

Waiting for a hotel elevator shortly after arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam, Shon Field, ’73, suspected she recognized an old acquaintance.

“I was dumbstruck,” says Deborah Kowal, ’73, about the encounter.

About 8,000 miles from Ann Arbor, Kowal and Field were face-to-face for the first time in some 50 years. The two attended the University of Michigan together and graduated from the same high school in Michigan. They weren’t particularly close while in school but had many friends in common and were friendly to one another. But after they graduated in 1973, they went their separate ways.

“We shared extended friend groups, but we got to know each other a lot better on this trip,” Field says, laughing. She says it was great to reconnect with a full life of experiences behind them.

A busy street in Vietnam with people moving in both directions, motorbikes, and umbrellas.
Photo courtesy of Richard Goodman.

The two were part of an 18-person group of U-M alumni visiting Vietnam for a 15-day trip starting in late January. The trip was organized by the Alumni Association’s travel program and took travelers from Hanoi in the northern part of the country to Da Nang and eventually to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, visiting historical sites and immersing themselves in the culture of the country along the way with cooking classes, visiting rice fields, and other excursions.

Field was with her husband, Samuel Field, ’74, JD’77, and Kowal was traveling with her husband, Richard Goodman, MD’75, MDRES’78. All four had scheduled to do the same trip in 2020, but it was canceled after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Visiting the Past

Having grown up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Field says she felt it was important to visit Vietnam, calling it “almost an obligation.”

“When Debbie and I started at U-M, there were demonstrations against the war and class strikes. It was really a conscience-searching time and just very turbulent,” she says. “And then the aftermath was horrible.”

Kowal and Goodman felt similarly. Goodman had seen the aftermath of the war firsthand, having spent time in Malaysian refugee camps in 1979, helping screen refugees being evaluated for resettlement in the U.S., and in Thailand treating Cambodian refugee patients.

“That was deeply moving,” Goodman says of his time treating refugees. “None of us had prepared to face the circumstances and the deprivation of humanity that we witnessed taking care of people.”

Flying back to the United States, he says he remembers looking out of the airplane window to Vietnam at 35,000 feet, determined he would come back one day.

The trip through Vietnam was led by a local guide, and Field, Kowal, and Goodman all say they had a wonderful experience learning about the country, exploring the countryside, and meeting locals.

Beyond the old classmates reuniting, the entire group of U-M alums became fast friends. Along with Goodman, there were two other medical school graduates on the trip as well. There was a WhatsApp group created for organizational purposes, but months after the trip, the group has remained in touch.

Four people (three women and a man on the right, pose in Vietnam. They are all wearing U-M hats and green badges on lanyards.
Deborah Kowal, ’73, far right, stops to take a photo with fellow U-M alums in Hoi An, Vietnam, during a trip with the Alumni Association’s travel program. Photo courtesy of Richard Goodman.

“This group really bonded,” Field says. This was the second trip that Kowal and Goodman have taken with the Alumni Association and they plan to take more.

“I have gushed about this to all of our friends,” Goodman says. “I regret we didn’t start doing this earlier.”

Field and her husband are frequent travelers, with Vietnam being their 17th trip with the Alumni Association. She says traveling with fellow alumni is a special experience.

“It’s just great to be with people who we didn’t necessarily share the same time with, but we shared the same space with at some point,” Field says. “And that creates such a nexus and feeling of familiarity.”

As for the rekindled friendship between Field and Kowal, the two hope to see one another again this summer when Kowal and Goodman plan to visit Ann Arbor.

Jeremy Carroll is the content strategist of the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan. 

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