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Philanthropist leaves a lasting $1.8 mln legacy for students

By Manh Tung, Lam Le   April 15, 2016 | 05:26 pm PT
Before his death, Pham Van Ben donated a dorm he built for university students worth VND40 billion ($1.8 million) and set aside a significant part of his fortune for scholarships targeting excellent students from poor backgrounds.

A day after Ben’s funeral, on the morning of April 14, construction of the free dorm for students of Nong Lam University – Ho Chi Minh City had resumed.

Nguyen Thi Bao, the dorm’s manager, is urging the contractor to finish the dorm by June 9, just in time to welcome the first poor students as per the late Ben’s wishes.


Pham Van Ben. Photo by: Ben's family

The 71 year old Bao remembers the day in a café on December 12, 2012, when Ben told her about his idea to build a dorm with her in mind as the manager.

Initially, he wanted to build a nursing home for old and lonely people. But after many sleepless nights, he decided to spend VND40 billion on building a dorm for poor students. More than anyone, he understood the hardships of poor students suffered from his own difficult youth.

Ben put aside his business and went looking for a suitable plot of land for the dorm. It didn’t take long to convince Nong Lam University – Ho Chi Minh City to let Ben build the Co May dorm on their land in Thu Duc district.

The dorm will have 54 rooms, three self study rooms and a common room for 432 students.

“Ben was a good man. I could see that it in him from the moment I first met him 27 years ago,” said Bao.

At the time, she was just a banker and Ben’s company was just a workshop. “Those were difficult times and he needed a bank loan. His humility, sincerity and persuasiveness left a great impression on me. From partners, we gradually became closer like brother and sister over nearly 30 years,” Bao said.


Nguyen Thi Bao (left) works with the contractor for the dorm. Photo by Manh Tung

Ben told her not to accept any future payments from students who stay at the dorm. If they want to help the next generation of poor students, they should all get together to do something meaningful, such as building another free dorm.

In his final years, Ben went to the bank every month to transfer scholarship money to nearly 20 students all over the country, according to his son, Pham Minh Thien. Only when he was too busy did he leave the transfer to the beginning of the month because “it may not seem urgent for me but it is for them”. He also never forgot to text each student saying: “Ben has just sent you scholarship money”, even though he didn't have the chance to meet most of them.

Thien once said Ben should ask his accountant to do the transfers for him, but he insisted on doing it himself.

“I understand it made him happy,” said Thien.


The dorm under construction. Photo by Manh Tung

Ben wanted VND15 billion to be set aside each year to pay for tuition fees, living costs and extra English and ICT courses for all students admitted to the dorm.

“Our family will continue dad’s wishes,” said Thien.

Tran Dinh Ly, training manager at Nong Lam University – Ho Chi Minh City, was particularly touched by Ben’s generosity.

“Ben’s wish to witness 432 students living and studying for free in the dorm didn't materialize. He has gone but his warm heart remains here with us,” said Ly.

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