“Why do Vietnamese students refuse to return home after studying abroad?”

Courtesy of Tuổi Trẻ Online
Courtesy of Tuoi Tre

If only the world were that simple.  Fortunately, in this case, it’s not.  Many remain overseas for various reasons, mostly related to career opportunities and earnings potential.  Some fall in love and end up marrying a host country national while others choose to study in a field that is either at an early stage of development or nonexistent in Vietnam.

Do people return for family reasons?  Absolutely.  But there are other compelling reasons, including the vitality of the economy and the many opportunities available to people in some industry sectors to either work for an existing company or start one of their own.   There are also those who, for whatever reason, believe that the grass is greener in country X, find out it’s not, and return home.

I do agree with Dr. Trung, who studied in France and now works at the Hanoi-based Vietnam Construction and Import-Export Joint Stock Corporation, that ” the way organizations…  here operate is unprofessional, and lacks fair competition and the spirit of teamwork.”  This is one reason why many young Vietnamese prefer to work for a multinational company or a local company with an international environment.  Other disincentives mentioned are nepotism, a lack of transparency in the workplace and salaries that are not in line with living expenses.  For academic researchers in many fields there are fewer opportunities to conduct in-depth research because of a lack of resources.

Other reasons are related to quality of life, including concerns about the quality of the educational system – on behalf of their children – now or in the future – pollution, food hygiene, traffic jams, accidents, etc.

I also agree with what Nguyen Thien Nhan, former Minister of Education and Deputy Prime Minister and currently Chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, said last year during a visit to Hanoi-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted, namely, that Vietnamese students are not required return to Vietnam after finishing their studies overseas, as they can serve the fatherland anywhere in the world.  This sentiment was echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam:  “as the concept of global citizenship has become more popular, it does not mean overseas students cannot contribute to Vietnamese society when they refuse to return to Vietnam.”  Examples including remittances, a sharing of expertise and business contacts, and charitable work.

Recipients of Government Scholarships:  A Special Case

Since this involves the use of public funds used to invest in talented young Vietnamese, many of whom remain abroad, the government needs to use a carrot and stick approach.  Here are four solutions proposed by Pham Quang Hung, director of the Vietnam International Education Development (VIED) under the Ministry of Education and Training, to ensure that more return to Vietnam:

According to Hung, the first solution is choosing talent with moral quality to send to those programs, as well as offering obligations that they are required to come back after finishing their studies.

The second solution is strengthening the monitoring of students studying abroad.

Next is to create motivation such as promoting their patriotism and offering good working opportunities and environments.

The last solution Hung suggested is to handle violation cases.

His advice, not the first time this has been proposed, by the way, is to require them to reimburse the government for the cost of their scholarship, should they decide to remain abroad.  It’s only fair.


Financial Aid: Don’t Trust, Verify!

financial aidTaking the theme of gaming the system and running with it,  there is also the issue of financial aid and how to determine need, which becomes much more difficult once you begin evaluating international student applications.

There are schools that award some type of financial aid to all admitted Vietnamese students.  Others, especially the more selective institutions with healthy endowments that wish to assist qualified students who could not otherwise afford the high cost of their education, also award millions of dollars in financial aid.  Essentially and to put it bluntly, these schools are looking for smart, poor kids.  They are out there but it’s bit like mining for gold.  You need to sift through a lot of ore to find the nuggets of gold.  (As in other countries, including the US, there is a strong correlation between opportunity and social class.)

What happens a school makes a mistake, i.e,. awards financial aid to a smart, rich kid?  1)  The school could lose face because other students from the same country may know about the newbie’s parents and their wealth, which means the joke is on the school; and 2) it’s a waste of the school’s precious resources, which could have benefited a truly qualified and deserving student.

verifyThe bottom line is that even many wealthy parents want scholarships and financial aid for their children.  Why?  Bragging rights and a way of defraying the cost even, if money is no object.

As you may have already surmised, based on the title of this post, my advice is to verify not trust.  By that I mean perform your due diligence and find someone honest and reliable on the ground to get the scoop.  This would include, for example, a visit to the student’s home because seeing is believing, to some extent.  This exercise will save your institution money and the embarrassment of having a scholarship recipient show up on campus who other students from the same country know is not deserving of a need-based scholarship, to put it mildly.


Vietnam: Off The Beaten Track (OTBT) Tour 2014

Courtesy:  Princeton University
Courtesy: Princeton University

Below is a description of a new tour organized by EducationUSA, US Embassy, Hanoi.  Its purpose is to reach out to talented and gifted students in five (5) provinces in northern Vietnam.  Eligible t0ur participants include those who wish to “engage with Vietnam’s top students who are prime candidates for U.S. institutions looking to diversity their pool of full scholarship recipients” and, naturally, who are able to provide “full scholarships (tuition, room, board) to top international students.” 

The potential benefits to the participating colleges and universities, in addition to diversifying their pool of full scholarship recipients and, possibly, its student population, are:  1) global service through outreach to rural areas; 2) favorable PR, should they decide to place any stories about accepted and funded students in the Vietnamese media; and 3) the possibility that they might find a student in one of these high schools whose parents have the ability to pay.  (Not all of the nation’s wealth is in its cities.)

While I’m pleased to see a tour to places other than Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – I organized the first US higher education fair in Danang back in the day – it’s worth acknowledging a political reason for this activity related to the exercise of soft power beyond the confines of Hanoi and HCMC, i.e., to demonstrate to State/DC that the US Mission is making the attempt – with the assistance of US college and university reps, to inform rural students about opportunities to study in the USA, even though most cannot afford it.  (This reminds me of a former deputy principal officer in the US Embassy, the #2 person, who once went rogue, rhetorically speaking, at a reception for visiting US higher education colleagues, possibly after a few too many glasses of wine, when he voiced the opinion that the US Mission should focus all of its education-related outreach efforts on wealthy Vietnamese.)

If possible, I’ll check in with the participants and report back later this fall.


educationusa logoSpend one week visiting northern Vietnam’s best gifted and talented high schools that are “off the beaten track” of most U.S. recruiters. Engage with Vietnam’s top students who are prime candidates for U.S. institutions looking to diversity their pool of full scholarship recipients.

PARTICIPANTS: Accredited degree granting U.S. institutions providing full scholarships (tuition, room, board) to top international students. *Capacity is limited to 8 reps.

COST: *No registration fees

  • Total estimated cost for hotels and meals for the week is $1300
  • In-country transport, accompanying advisers/guides, and lodging reservations provided by U.S. Embassy Hanoi

DATES & SCHEDULE: Five provinces in northern Vietnam will be visited from September 28 to October 3 (Sunday to Friday). Following is the schedule for the tour:

Sunday, September 28: Morning departure from Hanoi to Lao Cai

Monday, September 29: Lào Cai Province

  • Morning: Visit Lao Cai High School for Gifted Students
  • Afternoon: Leave Lao Cai for Yen Bai

Tuesday, September 30: Yên Bái Province

  • Morning: Visit Nguyen Tat Thanh High School for Gifted Students
  • Afternoon: Leave Yen Bai for Nam Dinh

Wednesday, October 1: Nam Định Province

  • Morning: Visit Le Hong Phong High School for Gifted Students
  • Afternoon: Leave Nam Dinh for Thanh Hoa

Thursday, October 2: Thanh Hóa Province

  • Morning: Visit Lam Son High School for Gifted Students
  • Afternoon: Leave Thanh Hoa for Nghe An

Friday, October 3: Nghệ An Province

  • Morning: Visit Phan Boi Chau High School for Gifted Students
  • Afternoon: Leave Nghe An for evening arrival in Hanoi

*All transportation is by van provided by U.S. Embassy


  • EducationUSA reserves the right to refuse registration of any institution
  • Deadline for registration is August 15th
  • Capacity limited to 8 reps

QUESTIONS? Email HanoiEducationUSA[AT]gmail.com

Du học không khó (Study Abroad is Not Difficult)

book launch image (28.12.13)

This is the matter-of-fact title of a new book written by Trần Ngọc Thịnh, who earned a Master’s degree in 2011 from the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri with the support of a Fulbright scholarship.

Du học không khó is a unique A-Z Vietnamese language resource that’s chock-full of valuable information, advice and tips to guide young people through the sometimes daunting process of preparing for an overseas study experience, including in the U.S.  Best of all, it was written by someone who speaks from first-hand experience, a young man who earned a Master’s degree in the U.S. and returned home to contribute to a dynamic and rapidly changing Vietnam.

The U.S. remains the preferred destination for young Vietnamese who want to study overseas, ranking 8th among all places of origin, according to the latest update.  The American higher education system is large and diverse, which means students have literally thousands of choices.  In addition to the many other resources available, both on- and offline, Du học không khó will help young people and their parents navigate this path, find the most suitable institutions for them and be in a better position to benefit more fully from the experience, academically, socially and culturally.

Recognizing the reality that most Vietnamese enlist the aid of an educational consultant, I made this point about identifying qualified and ethical companies:  The best ones have your best interests at heart in guiding you through the selection, admission, and pre-departure process.  They will look for a match between your qualifications, interests, goals, ability to pay, etc. and a short list of colleges and universities (i.e., not chasing after commissions).

Click on the photo to read a Vietnamese language article about the event.

Capstone Vietnam, of which I’m managing director, and our International Academic Center (IAC) members, Kansas State University and Lane Community College (Eugene, OR), are proud to be sponsors of the book launch, the first event of which took place last Saturday afternoon in Hanoi.  I participated in a panel discussion with the author and a representative from the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF).  As I mentioned in my concluding remarks, Du học không khó is a labor of love that Thịnh wrote as a means of giving back and, to borrow a slogan from VietAbroader, a way to “pass the torch” to younger people, some of whom will follow in his footsteps.


The College of St. Scholastica Comes to Vietnam

Omnes semitae eius pacificae, which means All Her Paths Are Peace. (From the CSS College Crest)

CSS logoIt’s unusual for a US institution of higher education to send a delegation consisting of its president, a dean and a director of international education to Vietnam.  For an entire week.  But that’s exactly what The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) did in March.  CSS, which was founded in 1912, is a Catholic (Benedictine) institution located in Duluth, Minnesota (MN), where it is situated in a 200-acre forest overlooking Lake Superior.  U.S. News & World Report magazine consistently ranks the college among the best colleges and universities in the region for academic excellence.  The Washington Post named St. Scholastica one of the “hidden gems” in US higher education based on rankings done by college advisors from across the country.  Here are some more CSS facts and figures:

  • programs in the sciences, management, international business, psychology, mathematics, computer information science, economics, communications, marketing, business, social work and many other traditional liberal arts and humanities majors
  • total enrollment of 4,100 students across five campuses in MN evenly divided between traditional undergraduates in Duluth and non-traditional students in graduate programs, accelerated evening programs and online programs at all five campuses
  • 140 students from more than 40 countries

Who and Why

  • Dr. Larry Goodwin, President
  • Dr. Kurt Linberg, Dean, School of Business and Technology
  • Mr. Thomas Homan, Director of International Education
Dr. Goodwin speaking with students at Dinh Thien Ly School in HCMC.
IMG_0522 (resized)
After a meeting at Ton Duc Thang University in HCMC with Dr. Le Vinh Danh, President (middle), Mme Ton Nu Thi Ninh, Senior Advisor to University President and President of Institute for International Studies and Exchange (3rd from left) and staff.

 The purpose of their trip was “to gain a better understanding of the education landscape in Vietnam and the opportunities available not only to recruit students but also relative to study abroad opportunities for our own students and faculty.  Our hope is to come away with a better understanding of Vietnam, its institutions, its national and domestic concerns and its student populations.” 

As Dr. Goodwin wrote in an article that recently appeared in a college publication, this was more than a business trip; it was personal.  Forty three years ago I was a reluctant warrior stationed in Quang Tri just south of the DMZ, interrogating captured and wounded North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong at a brigade field hospital.  During my year deployment, I met ‘the enemy,’ men swept up, like me, in the unfolding struggle.  I spent three days with a high school mathematics teacher from Hanoi, a husband and father, with whom I might have been friends in other circumstances.  I saw grievously wounded men, one in my arms, die

Then a young soldier; now a seasoned educator.  This return was a chance to join two chapters of my life together, to connect me to myself.  I will be processing impressions and feelings for a long time, but one thing is already absolutely clear: This journey only deepened my conviction about the importance of the St. Scholastica mission.  Catholic Benedictine education is about the transformation of the human person; for us, education is a moral as well as an intellectual project.  Clear and critical thinking is important; so are imagination, compassion and courage.  Whole-person education really matters.  

IMG_0525 resized
Dr. Goodwin speaking to students at the end of an information exchange in Capstone Vietnam’s HCMC office.
TV show taping. From left to right: Ha Quyen, host; Larry Goodwin; Tom Homan and Kurt Linberg.

The Schedule

My staff and I had the privilege of spending the entire week with our CSS colleagues.  For them it was the ultimate experiential learning opportunity, the bookends of which consisted of a HCMC airport pick-up on Saturday evening and a Hanoi departure Sunday a week later. 

During that time, they had a country briefing, met with an American high school teacher and his class at a well-known Vietnamese school, spoke with US Commercial Service colleagues in the Consulate General, visited the University of Economics – HCMC, Ton Duc Thang University, the Vietnam International Education Development (VIED) division of the Ministry of Education and Training, two Hanoi universities and two highly regarded high schools, along with meetings at the US Embassy, AmCham-Hanoi, and with a US expat who runs a successful software engineering firm. 

In addition, they participated in a TV show taping and an information exchange with students in Capstone’s HCMC office, as well as an information session for interested students and parents in our Hanoi office to wrap up the week.  Dr. Goodwin made a side trip to Quang Tri province via Hue that weekend while Dr. Linberg and Mr. Homan traveled to Ha Long Bay.

That eventful week was a crash course in Vietnamese society and culture that provided our colleagues with the opportunity to meet with a variety of people in the education and business sectors, all of which will help them decide what role Vietnam should play in the College’s internationalization strategy and what the next steps for CSS should be in Vietnam. 


Determining Financial Need: Lessons from Vietnam (Part II)

Here’s the follow-up post in which I describe how to screen those who actually deserve the merit- and need-based scholarships awarded by many US colleges and universities.  By way of introduction, back in the mid-1990s, a book entitled Material World was published by Sierra Club Books in honor of the United Nations-sponsored International Year of the Family in 1994.  As the description states, “16 of the world’s foremost photographers traveled to thirty nations around the globe to live for a week with families that were statistically average for that nation. At the end of each visit, photographer and family collaborated on a remarkable portrait of the family members outside their home, surrounded by all of their possessions—a few jars and jugs for some, an explosion of electronic gadgetry for others.”  The ultimate goal of this fascinating project was to put “a human face on the issues of population, environment, social justice, and consumption as it illuminates the crucial question facing our species today:  Can all six billion of us have all the things we want?”  (This is a rhetorical question.  The point is, IMHO, why should we want so many things?)

One of the obvious lessons is that “seeing is believing.”  If you want to know about a person’s social class in most of the world, aside from how they speak, what clothes and jewelry they wear, what their faces and hands look like, what their level of education is, where they travel to, etc., visit them at their home to see where they live, how they live,  what they own, and how they get around.  This is precisely what my staff did as part of a scholarship screening process.

One of the criteria was that the finalist’s family could not afford to send their daughter or son to the school without a full scholarship.  Many families that are “low-income” on paper (e.g., low salary) are doing exceedingly well as a result of property ownership, other assets such as gold and jewelry, income from investments (e.g., rent, interest), savings, and, yes, corruption.  The home visits and conversations, plus official documents, provided us with sufficient information to make our recommendations to the school’s screening committee with confidence.


Determining Financial Need: Lessons from Vietnam

Many US colleges and universities, especially those with healthy endowments (i.e., highly selective liberal arts colleges but also some visionary state universities that are able to offer scholarships to international students, including by charging in-state tuition), award millions of dollars worth of merit- and need-based scholarships every year to international students.  They do this for the usual reasons:  1)  to diversify their international student populations; and 2) to brand their institutions in markets that they’ve identified as strategically important.  Vietnamese students, especially with the assistance of organizations such as VietAbroader and USGuide, among others, have become very adept in recent years at identifying and spreading the word about these opportunities.  In fact , you could say it’s become something of an exact science.

So how do institutions determine financial need in a country like Vietnam?  It’s not easy.  Unlike the US, which has many official paper trails that give schools a pretty accurate indication of a family’s ability to pay, “paper” and actual income and wealth in a country at Vietnam’s stage of development  are usually two very different things.  Like other countries, everyone wants a scholarship, including the sons and daughters of the nation’s über rich.  (To put this in context, when I say “über rich,” I’m referring, for example, to people who own cars that are worth as much as or more than your home.)  Scholarships are prestigious, confer bragging rights and, of course, save money along the way.  What’s not to like?

Here’s an example that proves my point that schools need help distinguishing between actual and faux need.  A young Vietnamese woman received a very generous (merit- and need-based) scholarship from a well-known and highly selective East Coast liberals arts college.  Once she arrived on campus, other Vietnamese students knew immediately that the school had been had.  She was in fact the daughter of a man who worked in ministry X, whose paper salary was quite low (in the hundreds per month), but whose family was, in reality, very wealthy.  If the college in question had worked with a reliable and trustworthy partner on the ground, it could have determined in short order that the family had  no need for a scholarship of that magnitude.

Stay tuned for part II in which I describe exactly how to screen those who actually deserve these types of scholarships, according to the institutions’ criteria; how to separate the deserving from the posers.  You can bullshit an admissions officer sitting in an office 13,000 kilometers away but you can’t do it to people on the ground who know all the angles and ways to skin the proverbial cat.