The benefits of education lie not only in economic betterment for the individual. It is also in developing students’ capacity to be informed and enable positive change in their societies.
In that way, education can contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
The same can be argued for international education. Those who are lucky enough to experience studying abroad could bring their acquired knowledge, skills, and personal development to make a positive civic contribution to society.
This is the objective of SDG 4: Target 4.7, Citizenship education for sustainable development.
The reality for many international graduates returning to Vietnam looks sketchy although hopeful in this aspect.
One of the key findings in my research about Vietnamese international graduates’ citizenship and social responsibility was that graduates felt a heightened sense of ‘civic self’ and citizenship brought about by their changed conception of ‘community’.
Living overseas allowed them to experience different government systems and community structures, which extended their idea of community beyond the Vietnamese traditional extended family and kinship lines.
Social responsibility became important, and with that, perceptions of opportunities for social change and confidence to take up some of these opportunities.
These graduates took part in a range of civic activities, from humanitarian to community services. Their aspirations to contribute to social development were varied. The international experience was often highlighted by graduates as informing them of the value of building human capacity, which was contrary to the Vietnamese culture of short-term welfare and gifts.
More strategic rationales, such as to cultivate networks for career prospects, were also evident at times, particularly in some graduates’ desire to engage with international NGOs. The Vietnamese priority attached to personal relations and trust emerged as a counterpoint to the more formal structures of these same international NGOs, which explained many graduates’ preference for informal networks.
It was also within these networks, which were an extension of families and friends, that the returnees found their shared values and opportunities to do ‘good’ for the community.
They perceived the potential for change to come about in non-systemic ways, even unintentional ways, or as a result of their interaction with existing political institutions and community groups.
One of the great insights was the graduates’ commitment to long-term community work, which was mainly driven by the values of community work itself, rather than achieved outcomes or a perception of possibilities for social change.
This may explain why many felt that benefits of international education are somewhat limited in the area of social development such as health, social welfare, poverty and underprivileged groups, democracy and human rights.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of social responsibility and perceived opportunities for social change even if opportunities are not always taken up.
This sense of citizenship should be the motivation for undertaking and reaping benefits of international education.
This post is extracted from my recent commentary piece in the University World News entitled “Improving the contribution of returning students to SDGs“.