Education, development scholarships and women's empowerment : exploring the impacts of the Vietnam Education Foundation Fellowship : a research report presented in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master's in International Development at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
The research project explores the impacts that international development scholarship programmes have had on women’s empowerment in Vietnam drawing on a case study of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF) Fellowship Programme and its female Fellows. Evaluations of such scholarship schemes are often limited to quantitative assessments of the number of graduates, degrees obtained or professional promotions after graduation. While education is understood as being a significant means for women’s empowerment, an understanding of how these education scholarship programmes have impacted on women’s empowerment is still under-studied, especially in the context of Vietnam.
This research provides an in-depth qualitative exploration of the experiences of five female VEF Fellows who pursued Master’s or Ph.D. degree programmes in the STEM fields in the U.S. and have now returned to work in Vietnam.
The research findings have shown that while the VEF Fellowship has had mostly positive impacts on women’s empowerment, it also resulted in some challenges for the women once back in Vietnam. In terms of the positive impacts, participants of the research reported they have now become self-confident and independent women. They have more self-respect and also gain respect from others. While previously, their decisions were influenced by others, now they make decisions in line with their own wishes. They are also able to access more career opportunities and enlarge their networks. In return, these VEF Fellows have exercised their expertise and positive attributes to support others within their family, their workplace, the community and the country at large. This transformation is a manifestation of the women’s empowerment.
Nonetheless, taking on the study opportunity also created some negative outcomes influencing women’s empowerment to some extent. When coming back, these VEF Fellows have encountered “reverse culture shock”, the feeling of loss and disorientation, negative reactions from family and friends for their being allegedly “Westernized”, and personal dissatisfaction with the Vietnamese working style, services, and infrastructure. They also have to deal with gender discrimination including problematic stereotypes of females in the STEM fields. Taking on the scholarships also brought about unexpected influences on these women’s personal and love life.
However, overall these Fellows did not regret the decision they had made to pursue higher education in the U.S. More importantly they took action to tackle any challenges and confirm their position in the workplace and in the society. All participants of the research felt that the positive changes outweighed the challenges.
The research findings prove that women’s empowerment might be achieved through education scholarships as part of development aid schemes. Development scholarships are not only
a means to enhance people’s expertise in specific professional fields but from a gender perspective they are effective tools to promote and sustain the position of women participants. More importantly, the awards granted to women have compelling impacts on transforming not only the women recipients themselves but also other women and the wider community. Research findings also indicate that besides access to a more advanced education, living in a more developed and less patriarchal country and interacting with people coming from diverse backgrounds and cultures, also contributes to the empowerment process of these women. At the same time, the research suggests that scholarship programmes should pay more attention to supporting women participants when they return to their home country.