Defining success in light of student experiences

Graduation ceremony (Image by Charles Deloye on Unsplash)
Dr Aryn Baxter

Aryn Baxter is an assistant research professor in the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education and directs the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at Arizona State University.

International mobility, particularly when offered to students from low-income contexts in the form of undergraduate scholarships, presents challenging migration dilemmas that influence the lived experiences and outcomes of such programmes. In this post, I reflect on how the experiences of international scholarship recipients from low-income contexts might inform the ways we choose to define and measure success.

In 2013, I interviewed 34 students from Rwanda in the midst of pursuing undergraduate degrees at U.S. higher education institutions through the Rwanda Presidential Scholars Program as part of an ethnographic study. Now, several years later, I implement an international scholarship programme for students from across the African continent who are pursuing undergraduate degrees in the United States. This work provides regular opportunities to observe and listen to students as they navigate diverse expectations and considerations as international scholarship recipients.

Three themes from these interviews and conversations with students from diverse African contexts offer insight into the profound implications of scholarship programme definitions of success for student experiences and programme outcomes.

Misalignment between programme, family and community expectations

Students frequently describe their struggle to chart a course in the midst of competing expectations and definitions of success. Particularly for international scholarship recipients from low-income contexts, family and community members often define success as taking advantage of opportunities abroad that provide stability and access to resources needed to help back home. In the words of one student from Rwanda:

Our families, our parents, they want us to stay here, not going back. They say how can you go back home and  live here when you have opportunities? They say don't miss that opportunity to stay there — try everything to stay there. You'll have a better life there.

You're like ok. If I stay here, I feel like I have the responsibility to help my country.

They're like yeah. People who help the country will be always here. Look for yourself first, and then you'll help after.

This message to advance one's career first and contribute to one's country later creates a tension for participants in programmes that define return to one's home nation upon programme completion as an indicator of success. It places students in a double bind: to return is viewed as failure by friends and family, while to remain abroad is perceived as a disappointment to sponsoring organisations. Even students who are deeply committed to scholarship programme objectives struggle to resolve the tension between expectations to return and pressures from home. Such cultural expectations are neither easily ignored nor transformed. They exert a powerful influence on students' mobility decisions.

Private struggles with the burden of privilege

Conflicting definitions of success have the potential to cultivate anxiety and distrust among individual scholarship recipients, their peers, and others available to offer guidance and support. Fear of failure breeds anxiety. Anxiety tends to increase as students approach graduation and gain a deeper awareness of the variety of challenges and level of competition that await them in the job market. It is intensified for students with limited family resources who lack a safety net to offer support in their transition. For some such students, receiving a scholarship to study in the US marks a turning point at which they assume a new level of responsibility for supporting their family members.

Distrust emerges when students perceive that their plans do not align with their perception of programme expectations and fear their intentions are likely to be interpreted as disloyal or unpatriotic. The tendency to keep post-graduation plans private was particularly prevalent among the Rwanda Presidential Scholars I interviewed. As described in further detail elsewhere, contributing factors include Rwanda's recent experience with identity-based conflict and the relationship between the scholarship programme and the national government (see Baxter 2015). Interviewees frequently expressed concern with being deemed "unpatriotic" by their peers and practised cautious discernment in the sharing of their personal plans. As one explained:

[Our plans after graduation are] not something we like to talk about because we know people will be judging.

They'll be talking about the program and saying this one is trying to do this, which is different from what you guys expect.

While levels of trust vary, the hesitancy to openly discuss migration dilemmas and how they might be resolved is not limited to students from a particular context or programme. I have observed students from diverse contexts take time to establish trust and carefully select the contexts in which they are willing to open up about their deliberations and plans for the future.

Fear as an obstacle to success

In addition to cultivating anxiety, concerns with being misunderstood or viewed negatively by their peers and programme supporters prevents students from discussing issues and receiving recommendations from those who might otherwise offer helpful insights. The unfortunate outcome in such situations is that students limit their possibilities and miss out on resources available to support them as they navigate challenges and prepare for the transition to life beyond graduation.

For example, if students pursuing degrees in fields in which graduate degrees are beneficial are uncertain of the acceptability of such on option, they may not obtain adequate guidance and support for the process of applying to graduate programmes. Moreover, they may not consider alternative options and back-up strategies that conversations with peers or professional support staff would encourage. Similarly, if students are determined to gain professional experience abroad prior to returning home to seek employment or launch entrepreneurial initiatives but perceive that such a choice would be viewed as unacceptable, they may withdraw from interactions with those who might otherwise provide valuable input.

Broadening definitions of success

These three themes drawn from observations and student narratives suggest that narrowly and universally defining success as immediate return to one's home context upon programme completion may limit the very outcomes that international scholarship programmes are designed to achieve. They underscore the importance of acknowledging the varied concerns and considerations of students from diverse social, political and economic contexts, family circumstances and fields of study.

In contrast, broader definitions of success create a safe space for students to navigate complex migration dilemmas with the support of peers and programme leadership. They also allow scholarship recipients the space, time, and agency needed to creatively strategise and forge their own unique paths toward a shared vision of impacting change in their home contexts. Openness to multiple trajectories cultivates trust by affirming an array of possible pathways that students might consider as they prepare to launch their careers and work toward the betterment of their communities.

In a globalised world in which mobility is commonplace, but not universally accessible, international scholarship programmes play an important role in opening international higher education opportunities to underrepresented groups. For students from the most marginalised contexts, the privilege of international mobility is accompanied by an array of expectations and a heightened sense of responsibility. Defining the success of such programmes in broad terms allows students to harmonise otherwise conflicting expectations, establish trust and collaboratively explore diverse paths to realising a better future for themselves, their families and their home communities.

Students frequently remind me that remaining abroad for a period after completing a bachelor's degree does not indicate a lack of desire to return home and work towards change. Instead, their narratives describe the choice of pursuing further study or professional experience abroad as a widespread strategy to maximize one's ability to fulfil responsibilities to family, community, and programme. As summarised by a Rwanda Presidential Scholar:

No one wants to go back directly after graduating. It's not because we don't want to contribute. It's because the requirement of contributing.

We are required more and we are not ready to fulfil those expectations yet.