Girls Can Do Anything
Weekly Insights and Analysis
Some of the world’s best minds are going undeveloped because of our failure to educate girls. It’s surely a truism, but when you hear it directly from Michelle Obama you may get a chill up your spine. That was my experience in December when I joined the Grassroots Leaders Roundtable, organized by Ms. Obama’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, in Long An Province, Vietnam. Michelle Obama and friends at the Girls Opportunity Alliance Grassroots Leaders Roundtable in Long An Province, Vietnam, on December 9, 2019 (Photo: Chuck Kennedy / The Obama Foundation) The GOA is a program of the Obama Foundation that empowers adolescent girls around the world through education, especially poor girls from disadvantaged communities, allowing them to achieve their full potential and transform their lives, families, and communities. Ms. Obama was accompanied to Vietnam by actors Julia Roberts, Lana Condor, and Ngo Thanh Van and Today Show cohost Jenna Bush Hager.
There is no single or simple approach to this mission, but roundtable participants all agreed that education is the key for these girls, and that they need holistic support, including tuition, soft-skills development, and leadership training, so they can rise to their full potential. We shared our successes and challenges, as well as the stories of girls in our programs who have achieved things far beyond our hopes. We talked about collaborating to maximize our resources, support one another, and inspire more action for girls’ education, and we discussed the progress that has been made and the many people who are working in their own way to support girls and young women who have been left behind due to circumstances beyond their control.
Vietnamese girls face more barriers to educational attainment than boys. This is especially true for low-income families, internal migrants, and ethnic minorities in remote and mountainous areas. Economic and financial challenges, and administrative barriers for internal migrants, make it difficult for families to cover the costs of girls’ schooling. Low-income families often feel pressure for their daughters to work, rather than study, in order to contribute to household income or help out in the home. In remote or mountainous areas and parts of the Mekong Delta, some people believe girls don’t need an education, since they will be married and expected to assume domestic responsibilities. Vietnamese girls face more barriers to educational attainment than boys, especially girls from poor families in remote and rural areas. (Photo: Whitney Legge / The Asia Foundation) With funding from a variety of donors, including the Estée Lauder Companies, Jerry and Thao Dodson, the Merali Foundation, Meredith Ludlow and Marc Teillon, Lana Condor, the RYTHM Foundation, and the Mark and Thuy Barnett Foundation, The Asia Foundation’s scholarship programs in Vietnam support girls from disadvantaged and low-income families. The girls are selected from six regions to attend secondary school through graduation, to build key life and leadership skills, and to enter university, where many pursue traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. Our education programs are distinguished by the locally grounded, personalized support we provide to each of our young scholars. I’m grateful for the support of The Asia Foundation, which helped me complete my secondary education. Without this timely support, I was about to drop out in the 11th grade in order to save my family’s resources for my younger brother to go to school. — Le Hoai Thuong, freshman at Nam Can Tho University. Le Hoai Thuong received a scholarship from The Asia Foundation, and throughout my 10 years leading our girls’ education programs in Vietnam, I have met so many amazing girls like her—from low-income families, who have lost one or both parents, or who are living with disabilities. Many of them tell us that they were about to drop out of school due to their families’ financial hardships or pressure from their parents. The Asia Foundation’s support often came just in time to help these girls complete their education and come closer to their dreams. The Asia Foundation’s Dinh Kieu Nhung working with Vietnamese scholarship students (Photo: Whithney Legge / The Asia Foundation) Another example of the impact of this support is Ha Thi Anh, one of just two female students in the department of civil and industrial construction at the National University of Civil Engineering. Once a shy student from a rural province, Ha Anh is now a confident and accomplished student. She enthusiastically participates in all program activities—including soft-skills training workshops, supplementary English lessons, and volunteer activities. In any activity, she always plays a leadership role by gathering and organizing her peers. In her, we find an abundant source of energy and an intense desire to rise. She regards her family’s situation not as a fault, but as a motivation to achieve her goals. She works part time as a tutor to help cover the cost of living in Hanoi. She cultivates her English capabilities in any way possible and seeks advice from senior students and friends in her major. She explores opportunities for study abroad and many other previously unimaginable things, with the hope of a brighter future and supporting her parents.
Witnessing the transformation of these young women is indescribably inspiring. Their success is our goal and our ultimate reward. More than 70 percent of Asia Foundation scholarship recipients have been admitted to university and vocational colleges. Many are becoming leaders in their communities and are role models for their siblings and neighbors. Most of these girls have excelled in making their own way. More than 80 percent of the graduates from our first university scholarship cohort, in 2015, were recruited for high-paying jobs, while 10 percent pursued master’s degrees overseas. Dinh Kieu Nhung with Ha Thi Ahn. More than 70 percent of Asia Foundation scholarship recipients have been admitted to universities and vocational colleges. (Photo: Whitney Legge / The Asia Foundation) Yes, girls truly can do anything. There is still a long way to go, but I have seen so many girls with the right support fulfill their potential and embark on a life-changing path. I am so proud to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Michelle Obama and the Girls Opportunity Alliance to bring more visibility to the need to educate girls everywhere.
Dinh Kieu Nhung is education program specialist for The Asia Foundation in Vietnam. She recently received the Foundation’s Presidential Award for Exceptional Performance for furthering The Asia Foundation’s mission. She can be reached at [email protected] . The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation or the Obama Foundation.