Reflections on Father's Day from Viet Nam: What Pathfinder Taught Me About Being a Father

Ernest Ostro - Father's Day

I didn’t picture spending my third Father’s Day 8,073 miles from my wife and son on a work trip to Viet Nam. I also didn’t picture this blog as the start to my literary career. Definitely gang agley there.

I’m in Northern Viet Nam for Pathfinder International to work on a ground-breaking project to scale a web application for 181 commune primary health care centers to track patient visits. It might not be what first comes to mind when you think of sexual and reproductive health, but Pathfinder’s work is multi-faceted in its support of global public health.  And as a software engineer at heart, I’d rather work on a system that directly touches the health of a million people today than the latest eCommerce app. 

When I joined Pathfinder three years ago, I thought  I understood then how important Pathfinder’s work truly is. I knew educating women is the best way to achieve almost any form of improved social outcome, from justice to conservation. I knew that it’s nearly impossible to get an education when you’re thirteen, married, pregnant, and, yes, most likely barefoot too.

Still, two years ago, the birth of my wife and I’s son, Conall, changed everything. And when I say “everything,” I don’t mean my first year spent doing a walking zombie impression (although I thought the occasional drool a nice touch). I mean the human question of how to reconcile working on a project with a database of 75,000 orphans in Kenya with bringing up a child in 21st century America. Suddenly each and every story is different.

The best answer I can find is Pathfinder’s work. Once, after I presented months of exhausting research following howler monkeys in Central America, my favorite biology professor told me, “Nice job, but if you want to change the world, go educate women.” Simply put, where organizations like Pathfinder succeed, good things follow.

I know that I’m a better father for working with the great people around me. I’m influenced every day by their passion, their experience, and our shared commitment to sexual and reproductive health as a basic human right. I know now just how important men and fathers are to that common cause.

So, here I am in Viet Nam on Father’s Day.

These last two weeks has been a full-on whirlwind of meetings, sights, sounds, tastes, smells. I’ve had the chance to work with some of the smartest, funniest, and most interesting people I’ve ever had the luck to meet. They’ve certainly taught me a lot.

I’ve learned how much Pathfinder has contributed to sexual and reproductive health in Viet Nam, how many people’s lives it has touched, and how many people remember and value that.I’ve learned how to cross the street in Hanoi like a local: don’t look, don’t hesitate, ignore those hundred motorbikes coming your way, step out, and keep moving slowly. Don’t panic. That beeping is just…social!

I’ve learned how good Vietnamese programmers really are and that they too are a little weird, just like programmers everywhere else.

I’ve learned how much Pathfinder has contributed to sexual and reproductive health in Viet Nam, how many people’s lives it has touched, and how many people remember and value that.

I’ve learned that Father’s Day is not just a Hallmark holiday and that Skype isn’t the same thing however much my son giggles at my silly faces. In the long run, though, I think he’ll understand and respect why we’re a world apart today.

Ernest Ostro is Pathfinder International's Director of Information Technology.

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