Ethnic Minority Girls on the Road to True Empowerment

“My relationship with my step-Dad has improved a great deal ever since I was named a scholarship awardee,” said a beneficiary of A Brighter Path – a seven-year, high-school-through-college scholarship program for ethnic minority girls in Vietnam.

Impact beyond expectations

Initiated in 2010 by the Hanoi-based Vu A Dinh Scholarship Fund and VinaCapital Foundation (VCF), with funding from Talisman Energy Inc. and the VinaCapital Group, A Brighter Path entered its fifth year in 2014. While the program aims to help the scholarship recipients achieve their dreams and give back to their ethnic communities, the program administrators recently came across many positive effects beyond their expectations.

At an evaluation session of Dream Meeting 2014 –  where a total of 47 ethnic minority students were convened in Nha Trang between 24 and 27 July for a series of skill workshops and empowerment activities – an ethnic Cham student, who wanted to remain anonymous, recounted how the scholarship had changed her life. “My step-Dad used to treat me badly,” she said. “But I guess when he saw me receive the scholarship, which is to date the best achievement of my life, he started to appreciate my hard work and become a more loving Dad.”

The student and her peers reflected on the program’s impact by both “show and tell.” Apart from having a busy schedule of workshops with top female experts from Navigos Search, Deloitte, John Robert Powers and Vietnam Insight Applied Psychology Company, the 47 girls joined a mini contest where they did group presentations on what they’d learned since A Brighter Path’s launch in 2010.

They were challenged to communicate their ideas with maximum creativity admist the simulation that they were assigned into nine groups just three days before the event and when they were still staying home in 18 provinces across Vietnam. The girls quickly used phone, email and facebook to organize among themselves, the result of which were a great many of “creative, fun and very thoughtful” presentations – to use the words of Mrs. Robin King Austin from VCF.

A team of five ethnic minority girls won the 3rd Prize at a mini contest by using theater to tell how the scholarship program of A Brighter Path had helped them pursue higher education instead of dropping out of school for early marriage. Dream Meeting 2014, Nha Trang City (Left to right: H Yun, Hoang Thi Lan, Hoang Thi Tham, Vong Phat Lien and Lo Thi Phuong Lien)

A team of five ethnic minority girls won the 3rd Prize at a mini contest by using theater to tell how the scholarship program of A Brighter Path had helped them pursue higher education instead of dropping out of school for early marriage. Dream Meeting 2014, Nha Trang City
(Left to right: H Yun, Hoang Thi Lan, Hoang Thi Tham, Vong Phat Lien and Lo Thi Phuong Lien)

As a family

When surveyed, the 47 students – without exception – pointed out that Dream Meeting 2014 was more fun than the previous annual events in the scholarship program and witnessed a high level of participation from everyone involved.

Ms. Plang Thi Hai Yen – an ethnic Co Tu student now in law school, together with her five teammates, made a bold proposal of taking charge of organizing some of the activities for the next Dream Meeting. “We’re very lucky beneficiaries of a scholarship program like this. But we want to be active contributors too,” said Ms. Yen. “When we were first admitted to the program, we were like little kids in tenth grade. We’ve grown up a lot and would like to join the planning process for Dream Meeting 2015,” she added.

While reviewing how they’d been able to apply the tools learned from the Dream Meeting series over the years, Ms. Yen’s team also candidly identified the difficulties they may encounter in the workplace and where they would need more help from the program administrators. Their well-presented picture about confidence – real versus forced – in a professional environment was immediately picked up by Mrs. Robin King Austin, the CEO of VCF.

Specifically addressing the students at the scholarship ceremony on 26 July, Mrs. Austin said, “I hope that the happy faces that we see here are truly happy, and that we have inspired you to feel strong enough, confident enough and sure enough about your ability to perform that you do not need to hide behind a happy face.”

Trying to be confident in the workplace: True vs Forced. Picture from a student group presentation. Dream Meeting 2014, Nha Trang City

Trying to be confident in the workplace: True vs Forced. Picture from a student group presentation. Dream Meeting 2014, Nha Trang City

Accordingly, the students were encouraged to talk about their problems and anxiety as soon-to-be third-year students in university and to work them through as a family. For deep listening, VCF introduced a set of problem identification and solving tools from The Purpose Group – an advertising agency in Ho Chi Minh City and a supporter of the program, thus getting the girls to open up.

Ms. Ho Thi Xinh from the poverty-stricken Quang Tri Province recalled how she overcame tremendous hardship to pursue a Bachelor’s in pharmacy. “Because my parents passed away when my sister and I were two little kids, I live with my uncle and aunt. They used to complain a lot about school fees and wanted me not to go to university,” she said with tears. Sometimes haunted, Ms. Xinh would just run away as a way of refusing to drop out of school.

“What A Brighter Path has really done is empowering us to pursue our chosen dreams. Without the scholarship, I may be an unskilled worker or do something else now,” she added. Although aware of the challenges ahead, especially given the recent death of her uncle and that her aunt is over 70 now, Ms. Xinh feels fortunate to have been in the scholarship program since high school, which gave her the confidence to pursue a career in pharmacy – a field she really loves.

Towards greater empowerment of ethnic minorities

At Dream Meeting 2014, the students were asked for the first time to present their visions of the scholarship program, as well as their own understanding of its objectives.

A student from Dak Nong Province – Ms. H Yun – summed it up best when she said, “It’s not only for us to achieve our individual dreams, but also to do good for the wider community of ethnic minorities.” She went on to link the individual and the collective, saying, “Before being able to help our communities back home effectively, we must improve our skills and individual capacities.”

Mdm. Truong My Hoa – Chairwoman of the Vu A Dinh Scholarship Fund and former Vice President of Vietnam – echoed Ms. Yun at the scholarship ceremony, “Given the knowledge, skills and impressive confidence you’ve acquired over the years, I believe you’ll make a difference locally and nationally.”

In her speech, Mdm. Hoa also shared that the National Assembly of Vietnam usually has representatives from 30 ethnic minorities, while country has a diversity of 54 ethnic groups. One of her highest hopes, therefore, is seeing some of the students from A Brighter Path become advocates for their communities in the National Assembly. “Political equality – that’s the highest form of empowerment,” she concluded.

Dream Meeting 2014 received generous donations from both companies and individuals, including KY International, Ernst & Young, KPMG, AA Corporation, Al Fresco’s, Hoa Binh Construction, Mariposa, Deloitte, DHL Vietnam, Mr. Pham Phu Ngoc Trai, Ms. Anh Vo, Mr. Hawkins Pham and Ms. Marilyn Kindy.