Motivations for Studying Abroad and Immigration Intentions: The Case of Vietnamese Students


Here’s a perfect example of serendipity.  I noticed that someone had visited my blog from this referrer:  Motivations for Studying Abroad and Immigration Intentions
The Case of Vietnamese Students, Journal of International Students.  Why?  Because the author cited this 2018 blog post:  Viet Nam Ranks 5th in International Enrollment in 3 Countries.  

It was written by Tran Le Huu Nghia is a research fellow at Informetrics Research Group and Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ton Duc Thang University, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His research interests include graduate employability, teaching and learning in higher education, international education, teacher education and TESOL. 

Below is the abstract:

This article reports a study that investigated prospective and current Vietnamese international students’ motivations to study abroad and their immigration intentions. Analyses of 55 intercept interviews and 313 responses to a survey revealed 12 push and pull factors that motivated students to pursue overseas studies and 18 sociocultural, economic, and political factors that influenced their immigration intentions. Independent samples t tests indicated that there were statistically significant differences in the influence of motivations on decisions to study overseas between groups of male and female students and prospective and current students. The analyses, furthermore, suggested that students’ immigration intentions depended on their personal attachment to the home country and (perceived) adaptability to the host country.

I highly recommend this short (16 pp.) article, if you’re interested in learning more about why young Vietnamese study overseas, including key push and pull factors. 

To further whet your appetite to read the entire article, here is part of the conclusion:  

In short, despite its limitations, this exploratory study found that international students were motivated by several factors to pursue international education overseas. The study also indicated that not all of the students were immigration hunters; many were willing to return their home for socioeconomic, cultural, and political reasons. Therefore, the fear that international students arrive in a host country to seek immigration opportunities is biased, especially when the host country has the power to adjust its policies regarding international students (e.g., Spinks, 2016).

I’ve had considerable first-hand experience over the past 14 years in Viet Nam with the fact that many Vietnamese students who study overseas at not “immigration hunters” and are returning home for “socioeconomic, cultural, and political reasons.”  The reasons are simple:  1) there’s much more to come back to in a growing number of fields; and 2) conditions in some of main host countries are not as favorable as in the past, to say the least.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Viet Nam Ranks 5th in Emigration to the United States

travel stateViet Nam ranks 5th in two US-related categories:  the number of its young people studying there as of last June and the number of its citizens who emigrated there in Fiscal Year 2017, which ended on 30 September 2017.  (Viet Nam is a “top ten” country in other categories, including EB-5 cases and US real estate purchases in 2016/17.)

Below is a list of the top 10 countries for US-bound immigration (PDF download).

  1. Mexico: 84,045
  2. Dominican Republic: 48,254
  3. China: 35,350
  4. Philippines: 30,410
  5. Viet Nam: 28,719
  6. India: 27,303
  7. Haiti: 16,694
  8. Jamaica: 13,695
  9. Bangladesh: 12,331
  10. Pakistan: 12,143

The breakdown for Viet Nam is as follows, along with an official definition of each category: 

Immediate relatives: 9,974  (Certain immigrants who because of their close relationship to U.S. citizens are exempt from the numerical limitations imposed on immigration to the United States. Immediate relatives are: spouses of citizens, children (under 21 years of age and unmarried) of citizens, and parents of citizens 21 years of age or older.

Special Immigrants: 53  A special immigrant is a person who qualifies for a green card (permanent residence) under the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) special immigrant program. In order to apply for immigration documents under this status, an individual must fill out a petition documenting his or her circumstances and submit the petition to USCIS.

Family Preference: 17,991 U.S. immigration law allows certain foreign nationals who are family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to become lawful permanent residents (get a Green Card) based on specific family relationships.

Employment Preference: 665  Approximately 140,000 immigrant visas are available each fiscal year for aliens (and their spouses and children) who seek to immigrate based on their job skills. If you have the right combination of skills, education, and/or work experience and are otherwise eligible, you may be able to live permanently in the United States. There are five employment-based immigrant visa preferences, including the popular EB-5 immigrant investor program in which Viet Nam ranks a distant second to China. 

Diversity Immigrants: The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV Program) makes up to 50,000 immigrant visas available annually, drawn from random selection among all entries to individuals who are from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The number is 0 because Viet Nam has a high rate of emigration to the US.  

Finally, 36 visas were issued under the Vietnam Amerasian categoryImmigrant visas are issued to Amerasians under Public Law 100-202 (Act of 12/22/87), which provides for the admission of aliens born in Vietnam after January 1, 1962, and before January 1, 1976, if the alien was fathered by a U.S. citizen. Spouses, children, and parents or guardians may accompany the alien.  Of the estimated 50,000 Amerasian children born during the war, 21,000 of them and more than 55,000 family members were permitted to emigrate to the US under the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987.  Only about 3% of Ameriasians in the US have found their fathers.  The rest are in Viet Nam, many in HCMC.  (Here’s a related story from 2015 and a more recent one about a father-daughter reunion.)

TOTAL:  28,719

The dynamics of push and pull are obvious here, given the fact that people from these countries represent large ethnic minority populations in the US.  For example, Mexican-Americans comprise 11.2% of the population.

Vietnamese immigrants are 5.1% of the worldwide total (559,536) with nearly as many Vietnamese moving to the US as immigrants from all of South America (30,242).  Vietnamese-Americans are the fourth-largest Asian American group after Chinese-, Indian-, and Filipino-Americans.  The US Census Bureau estimates the total population of Vietnamese-Americans (Việt kiều) to be just over 2 million, which is about 44% of the world’s overseas Vietnamese.

Where Do They Live?

California and Texas have the highest concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans with 40% and 12%, respectively.  Those states are also #1 and #2 in student enrollment with 6,171 in CA and 5,221 in TX, as of May 2017, according to the SEVIS by the Numbers quarterly update, for a two-state total of 11,392.  This means that two states out of 50 and Puerto Rico, which had one (1) student from Viet Nam, hosted 38% of all Vietnamese students, at the end of the 2016/17 academic year. 

Another interesting observation is that the percentage of young Vietnamese studying in CA was significantly lower than the percentage of Vietnamese-Americans living in that state (20.38%), while in Texas it was slightly higher (17.24%).

Other states with sizable concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans are Washington (4%), Florida (4%), and Virginia (3%).  It’s probably not a coincidence that these are among the top 10 host states for Vietnamese students.  There are also significant numbers of Vietnamese-Americans in Atlanta and New York, among other cities.  

Vietnamese in the U.S. Fact Sheet

In its series on social and demographic trends in the US, the Pew Research Center has produced fact sheets on Asians in the US, including Vietnamese-Americans.  It includes fairly up-to-date information about population, English proficiency, length of time in country, educational attainment, poverty rate, demographics, and social class.  For example, you can see how Vietnamese-Americans fare when compared with all Asians in the US in median annual household income, as well as the same income for US born vs. foreign born.  (The overall US median household income was $56,516 that year.)

economics vn-am

What Does It All Mean?

There are estimated 96 million Vietnamese, which means that the emigration of 28,719 of them to the US, most from southern Viet Nam, is a drop in the statistical bucket.  In case you’re wondering, that’s .03% of the population. 

Why do they go?  There are several reasons, most related to the pull factor.  The most obvious one is that so many Vietnamese in parts of the country that were in the former Republic of Viet Nam have so many relatives in the US.  Others, some of which overlap, are the often mistaken belief that the grass is greener, marriage (arranged or based on love), and employment-based cases.

In the meantime, growing numbers of overseas Vietnamese are relocating to Viet Nam, most likely in the thousands not tens of thousands, some to join a dynamic and promising startup scene, others to do non-profit work and still others simply to retire in their homeland.  The Vietnamese government has taken a number of steps to make them feel more welcome, including dual citizenship and the right to buy property.  (Many of those who have no intention of returning home are sending billions of dollars home in the form of remittances.  Viet Nam ranks 9th in that particular category with about 50% of those transfers coming from the US.)

Taking Advantage of a Golden Opportunity:  They Did It for the Children

I know of one couple who emigrated to the US through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) created in 1979 under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a way of allowing the immigration of Vietnamese affiliated with the Republic of Viet Nam government or military.  In this case, the man was a low-ranking soldier in the RVN army, like so many, and a farmer by trade. 

Why did they take advantage of the opportunity to emigrate?  Not because they were persecuted or discriminated against but as a way to give their children a better education and future.  Mission accomplished.  What are their future plans?  To return to Viet Nam for retirement because they really don’t like living in the US and they want to die and be buried in their hometown (quê hương).  Their children will likely remain.

BONUS:  There is Some Truth to This Particular Stereotype

It’s well-known that overseas Vietnamese and nail salons go hand in hand.  I’ve heard it used by consular officers as a reason why some student applicants are denied.   As the story goes, they say (“used to say” might be more accurate, since times have changed) that they plan to live with an aunt in San Jose and study at a local community college or university.  Said aunt just happens to own a nail salon that her niece will probably end up working in, illegally, of course.  It is a family business, after all.

In fact, according to the Wikipedia entry on Vietnamese-Americans and based on a reliable source,

Nail-salon work is skilled manual labor which requires limited English-speaking ability. Some Vietnamese Americans see the work as a way to accumulate wealth quickly, and many send remittances to family members in Vietnam. Vietnamese entrepreneurs from Britain and Canada have adopted the U.S. model and opened nail salons in the United Kingdom, where few had existed.

This trend occurs in Europe for the same reasons. Like the restaurant and other service sector businesses, labor costs are low and profit is high.  


Gaming the US Student Visa System: Easy as 1-2-3

fraudDo you want to emigrate to the US without the muss and fuss of a multi-year immigrant petition that may or may not be approved?  Psst!  Here’s a low-cost solution.  Apply to an undergraduate or graduate program, depending upon your educational background, at a reputable college or university where there are not many Vietnamese students, if any at all.  Your chances are better that the application will look legitimate. 

Make up a plausible story as to why you chose that off-the-beaten path institution (kudos to you for being so adventurous!), get the student visa, and pack your bags!  (If you’re denied the first time, pony up another fee and come up with a better story.  Maybe the second time will be the charm.  Or the third time.  There is always a bit of luck involved.)

Next, student visa in hand, fly directly to the city in which one of your relatives lives, as you planned from the very beginning.  Then contact your institution and apologize for the change of plans (“So sorry!  Family reasons!” you know the drill), and enroll at a local institution.  It doesn’t matter what you study as long as you’re legally in the US.  Plus, you can rest easy knowing that the original admitting institution is legally obligated to transfer your SEVIS record if you submit the request within a specified period of time.  (You know what is, right?)  Bingo, you’re in!  You’re golden!  Out with the old, in with the new!  Congratulations!  You did it!

Now you can plan your next move.  Marriage to a US citizen?  Maybe you or your rels already have something arranged and someone in mind.  An immigration attorney will help you with that.  Work visa?  That may take a little longer, especially in the current political climate, but it’s possible.   An immigration attorney an help you with that, too.

Shift to a more serious tone…

Here’s one particularly egregious example of what is essentially visa fraud, whereby a student uses an existing loophole in US immigration law to presumably to lay the groundwork for immigration.   

cheating_bartA young woman says she wants to pursue an MBA in the US.  She gains admission, finally gets her student visa, arrives in the US, and makes a beeline for an area with a high concentration of Vietnamese-Americans, including, surprise!, some of her relatives.  Following my instructions above, she immediately requests that her SEVIS record be transferred to Community College A even though she has a BA, which was required to enter the MBA program. 

No, wait.  Maybe it’s not a CC, after all.  The plot thickens.  She’s actually planning to take ESL classes at a local university, even though she met the English requirement of the aforementioned MBA program.  (Is your head spinning yet?)  At any rate, it’s all for show because it’s clear she’s killing time so that a green card can be arranged.  

The admitting institution, which is investing considerable resources to recruit international, including Vietnamese, students, loses a student, which amounts to a waste of staff time and loss of valuable tuition revenue, among other intangible yet equally important losses.

The bottom line is that the US government has to close this loophole, or at least not make this process so easy for young people who are clearly not bona fide students without a plan to return home, two pillars of the holy trinity of the student visa process. 

Advisers, be they from EducationUSA, the private sector, or admitting institutions, cannot read minds and look into potential students’ hearts.  The system can, however, be reformed so that students are held accountable for their decisions.  Is anyone listening?


Why Vietnamese Talent & Brains Are Choosing to Emigrate

Below are point-by-point responses to a 1 November 2016 article that appeared in Entity, a self-described Los Angeles, CA-based non-profit magazine “that allows people to speak their minds & have their hearts heard…”  My counterpoints begin with MAA (my initials) and are in blue.   

“Brain drain” is a complex phenomenon not a black/white picture.  The author makes a number of sweeping generalizations based on two primary sources of information.  Sometimes, the devil really is in the details, if you really want to get to the truth of the matter.


Photo courtesy of Entity

You’ve heard the story before: The small-town girl leaves her hometown to go to college in the city and never looks back. That story is playing out on a more complex and larger level for all of Vietnam as, in a trend known as “brain drain,” Vietnam’s men and women with talent are emigrating to other countries.

Why are Vietnam’s best and brightest hitting the road? And what does Vietnam’s “brain drain” mean for its future and the future of other countries? Here are the facts – from both Vietnam News and The New York Times – that you should know.

MAA:  Many of Viet Nam’s “best and brightest” don’t study overseas for various reasons, including financial.  Therefore, the only “road” they’re “hitting” is from Danang to HCMC, for example. 

1. The Numbers

According to Vietnam News, 70 percent of Vietnamese students studying abroad in 2011 did not return after graduation. In addition, 12 of the 13 ex-champions of a Vietnamese game show designed to find the brightest high school students – and given them a scholarship to study abroad – have decided to pursue their careers elsewhere.

MAA:  70% of Vietnamese students studying abroad in 2011 did not return after graduation.  Based on what data source?  I’ve never seen this data from either government. 

2. The Causes

Both Vietnam News and The New York Times, which describes Obama’s “sly” description of countries at risk of “brain drain” – traits that just happened to fit Vietnam perfectly – described similar causes:


Remember the annoyance you felt towards teacher’s pets or those who cheated on exams? Now think of how you’d feel if you had to “cheat” (aka pay bribes) so that your dreams of opening a business can come true. According to The New York Times, developmental agencies and businesses report that, in order to complete a project, they must pay Vietnamese officials bribes ranging from 20 to 50 percent of a project’s cost.

MAA:  Bribes are not required to open one’s own business and most companies are not involved with “developmental agencies.”  The author is mixing apples and oranges.  

Corruption has also taken place in Vietnam’s hiring protocols. As Vietnam News reports, an investigation of the Ministry of Industry and Trade’s Market Management Department revealed that some job interviewees received the questions in advance. Also, some who passed the exam had close ties with department officials. Not to mention that the purchase of positions in state-owned or government ministries is common knowledge.

MAA:  Yes, there is cheating for some public sector positions.  I view this as a “growing pain” of an emerging economy, one that will eventually go the way of the dinosaur. 


Before men and women can thrive, they must be able to survive. As Obama stated in The New York Times, “No job is so important that it’s O.K. if your children have asthma and they can’t breathe.” During Obama’s speech in Hanoi, air pollution monitors showed a level of 158, which is considered an “unhealthy” level. Not only does air pollution increase children’s risks for asthma and weakened lungs, but it can also increase the chances of adults having heart attacks and strokes.

MAA:  Not unlike some major cities in the US and other countries.  Pollution in Hanoi, for example, is not year-round.  It depends upon certain climatic conditions.  For example, as I wrote this, the air pollution index was 62 or 63 in much of the city.  51-100 is “moderate”, defined as follows:  Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.

The air pollution problem needs to be addressed by providing more public transportation, which is in the works, imposing certain driving restrictions (e.g., carpooling), and fewer motorbikes, which pollute more than cars. 

Another point is that Hanoi is one of a number of cities in Viet Nam where people live and work. 

D+ Education

Let’s be honest. If you studied abroad in college, it was probably more for the cultural experiences (aka, cute boys and plenty of delicious food) than the educational benefits. According to The New York Times, though, many Vietnamese students study abroad in order to receive a better education than available in their own country. In 2013, more than 125,000 Vietnamese studied abroad – 19,000 of them going to the United States. To help improve Vietnam’s higher education system, the U.S. is supporting the formation of Fulbright University Vietnam.

MAA:  Yes, it’s true that economic growth and the concomitant ability to pay for high-ticket items like overseas study have leapfrogged over the development of the country’s education system, including its institutions of higher education.  This will change in due course, as the quality of the nation’s colleges and universities improves. 

Poor pay and working conditions

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Live to work, not work to live.” But finding a job you’re passionate about can be considerably harder when, as Vietnam News explains, jobs in Vietnam might not pay a livable salary. For instance, Nguyen Trong Nhan shares the story of a friend who received his master’s degree in biotechnology in the U.S. but chose to return to Vietnam to work. However, he soon discovered that his monthly salary of 286 U.S. dollars was not enough to get by in Hanoi. When he returned to the U.S., he found a job paying $5,000 a month.

MAA:  It depends upon the industry and the job.  While I don’t know the circumstances of the man who earned a MS in biotechnology and found a job with a monthly salary of $286, my guess is that it was with an institute of some kind, i.e., in the public sector.  Many Vietnamese are studying in fields in which there are not yet many jobs “back home.”  That reflects Viet Nam’s current stage of development.  There are young Vietnamese who studied in the US and other countries who have returned home are doing very well in terms of salary, contributions, and job satisfaction. 

Working conditions can also be a challenge in Vietnam. Not only is equipment often outdated, but young, talented workers are also disheartened by the lack of funds for scientific research.

MAA:  It depends upon the field.  Uneven development is still the order of the day.  Most positions in Viet Nam do not involve “scientific research.”   

3. What Next?

In particular, Nguyen Trong Nhan (M) from Vietnam News calls for several changes to reverse the “drain brain” hitting the nation. He suggests that the country give younger generations more access to powerful, independent positions in the workforce – and see what changes they enact from these positions. He also says that it is important to invest more money and value into furthering scientific research, make working conditions not only acceptable but also tempting to young workers and encourage patriotism in youth so they will use their gifts to contribute to their country. Once these changes are made in Vietnam, the country is more likely to experience the growth of a young, healthy workforce.

MAA:  My prediction is that Viet Nam will follow in the footsteps of China in this respect.  Many Chinese students are returning home because there are more opportunities there than in the country in which they earned their degree(s), among other reasons. 

The author depicts a glass-is-half-empty situation and overlooks the increasing number of young Vietnamese who are returning home and making seminal contributions to their industry and society.  I fully expect this trend to continue and indeed accelerate.

“Outdated Immigration Laws: Bad for Students, Worse for Local Economies”

It starts with the student visa process, which is one component of a broken immigration system.  At the end of the day, the only issues that really matter are: 1) ability to pay; and 2) whether or not the applicant is a terrorist.

immigration-reformThe first question in the holy trinity of the vetting process – are you a bona fide student? – has already been answered by the admitting institution.  (Recommendation:  Take unaccredited institutions out of the equation because “bona fide student” and “rogue provider” are a contradiction in terms.)

The third question – what are your post-graduation plans?, i.e., to return to your home country – should also be jettisoned.  Emigration is a personal decision and, Lord knows, the US needs a certain percentage of international students to remain for the long-term, if not forever.  With a median age of 38+ the population isn’t getting any younger, plus, there’s also a shortage of skilled workers in key fields.

NOTE:  Six (6) winners of Nobel Prizes affiliated with US universities are foreign born.  (See America’s Immigrant Laureates.  11.10.16, Inside Higher Ed)

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.


“Hillary Clinton promises Green Card to STEM F-1 visa students who graduate with a Master’s/doctoral degree”

Photo courtesy of The American Bazaar

Now THAT’S a headline you don’t see every day.  (Follow this link to read the article from which it was taken.)  While the current anti-immigrant, anti-foreign climate in the US is not ideal for these types of proposals, I’m pleased to see that this issue is (still) being discussed.

The notion that certain international students who study in the US should be allowed to remain after graduation, should they so desire, is not a new one.  President Obama has alluded to it in a couple of State of the Union speeches and even Donald Trump has mentioned it.

Instead of limiting permanent resident status to international STEM graduates with a Master’s or Ph.D. degree, why not include any international student who wishes to remain in the US for the long term?  After all, deciding where to work, live and, possibly, emigrate to is a personal decision.  Besides, the US population is graying (median age:  37.8 vs. 29.7 for the world), and the economy needs a certain percentage of international graduates to remain, regardless of field of study.  As with other well-educated immigrants, they generally make the US a better place on so many levels.

Why not reform student visa policy, following in the footsteps of competitor countries such as Australia and Canada, and base visa issuances on one criterion:  ability to pay.  By issuing an I-20, admitting institutions have already made a determination that they are bona fide students and their post-study plans are a personal decision.  (Many don’t even know what they’ll be doing and many others simply jump through the necessary hoops and say what the interviewing consular wants and needs to hear about returning to their home country.)

Growing numbers of Vietnamese students are returning home because Viet Nam has become a land of economic opportunity in many fields.  Others relocate to a third country for employment.  Still others remain in the US for the long term, again for employment and other reasons, e.g., marriage to a US national.


Vietnam Ranks 6th… in US Immigration

During the US government fiscal year 2015 (ending 30 September 2015), over half a million people emigrated to the US.  Of that number (531,463), 27,391 (5.15%) were from Vietnam, including 13 whose visas were issued under the Vietnam Amerasian category.  Below is the list of top 10 countries based on the number of immigrant visas issued.

  1. Mexico:  82,476
  2. Dominican Republic:  45,065
  3. China:  39,251
  4. Philippines:  36,650
  5. India:  30,381
  6. Vietnam:  27,391
  7. Pakistan:  14,220
  8. Bangladesh:  14,093
  9. Haiti:  13,251
  10. El Salvador:  12,488
Courtesy: Campus,ie

Most of those are family members of Vietnamese-Americans who arrived in the US during several waves of post-war emigration.  Others are Vietnamese who want to hedge their bets, so to speak, and have no intention of living full-time in the US, while some others are Vietnamese who study in the US and then, for whatever reason, often of a personal nature, make the fateful decision to emigrate.

Unlike some in the past who had close ties to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), who have never returned to their homeland for political reasons, most of the newer immigrants maintain close ties with Vietnam.

Most emigrate in the hopes of a better economic life, which is not always the case, given how static the US economy is right now and how dynamic Vietnam’s is.  I know of one family who were among the last to emigrate under the auspices of the Orderly Departure Program, which ended in 1997.  (Under this program, which began in 1980, 623,509 Vietnamese were resettled abroad, including 450,000 in the US.)  The parents are planning to retire to their home village in Vietnam and one of their children made plans to return because he saw more opportunities in Vietnam and he feels more at home here than in the US.  The main objective of the parent’s decision to emigrate was to give their children a better education than they would have had in Vietnam.

Considering the size of Vietnam’s population, i.e., over 93 million, these numbers are inconsequential and have been decreasing with the passing of each year.

The full PDF report from which the above stats were excerpted can be downloaded here.