The impact of home-country context on scholarship outcomes

Three people at a cafe with laptop
Anne Campbell

Anne Campbell is a CIDE (Comparative and International Development Education) doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, where her research focusses on the relationship between international scholarships and fellowships and students' home countries. Prior to this, she managed an international undergraduate scholarship scheme and has worked for NGOs and government organisations.

The theory of change that underpins many international scholarship programmes suggests that with exposure to quality education found in leading universities, students will bring newfound knowledge and experiences back home to positively shape the future of their countries. Inherent in this model are many associated assumptions about the type of knowledge acquired and how these students might influence change in their fields. In my view, one of the most important considerations is home country context itself. If we assume that graduates bring knowledge home and should apply it for the advancement of their countries, can we further assume this knowledge is welcomed and integrated?

In my research, I ask this question: 'What qualities of the students' home countries influence the success of international scholarship programmes that aim to foster political, social, and economic change in those home countries?' In other words, are there certain national contextual characteristics that help or hinder scholarship programme graduates to implement change when they return home – and influence their decisions to stay at home in the first place?

To identify these factors, I asked scholarship programme graduates how they perceive their own and other scholarship recipients' contributions to national development and to identify the factors they think helped or hindered their ability to create change in their home countries. In 2014, for my PhD dissertation research, I interviewed 20 Georgian and 20 Moldovan graduates who had studied on the same or similar United States (US) Master-level scholarship programmes. When comparing the results from these two countries, three considerations emerged as key to influencing scholarship alumni's choice to return home and their success in creating change in their home countries.

Consideration #1: Career opportunities, salaries, and personal agency

Almost all of the alumni I interviewed (36 of 40) were working in a field related to their US Master's degree, and all agreed that their US education significantly shaped their professional careers. On the whole, alumni believed the best way to influence national social and economic change was to live in their home country, advocating for reform "on the front lines" – in government, education, and civil society.

However, the types of careers pursued by scholarship alumni vary considerably by country. In Georgia, 17 of the 20 alumni lived in their home country and 14 currently or previously worked for the national government. There, scholarship alumni were often placed in positions of decision-making, where they were allowed to introduce new programmes and were offered comfortable salaries.

In the case of Moldova, approximately half of the interviewees had pursued positions outside of the country. Those who remained in the country predominantly worked for the United Nations or European Union (EU) agencies. Alumni said that although they would like to work for the government or in academia, they could not survive on such minimal salaries and refused to accept bribes or do additional consulting work required to make ends meet. One alumnus summed it up by saying, "If we really want this country to change, I think we need a change force – an army of change agents inside the government who can open [it] up". Unfortunately, because of the low quality of government and academic posts, few alumni accepted the conditions in these front-line positions.

Consideration #2: Scholarship alumni perceive that the government's transition to democracy provides an exceptional opportunity to promote change

In Georgia and Moldova – two countries pulled between Europe and Russia – the governments' transition to democracy and European integration opened new opportunities for national political, social, and economic change. Scholarship alumni were well positioned to lead new initiatives, building on their subject matter expertise and experience gained from living in the US. In Georgia, with a swift 2003 revolution that brought about sweeping changes, a new government hired many US-educated individuals to lead departments, drive out corruption, and propose new development strategies. In Moldova, with a slower, bumpier transition towards Europe, alumni spoke about being simultaneously hopeful and frustrated. High levels of perceived corruption and entrenched government inefficiencies have dissuaded many alumni from getting more involved in activities that can bring about change, such as running for office. One alumnus noted that the sole reason he's not pursuing a position as a judge is because he doesn't want to deal with – or be perceived as part of – a corrupt judiciary system.

On a related point, alumni in both countries spoke about their national revolutions – Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Moldova's Twitter Revolution in 2009 – as flashpoints in their ongoing quests to help their countries develop. These revolutions sparked their interest and awakened new ideas on how they could help their countries, almost as if a revolution in the country equalled a "revolution of the mind". At the time of revolution, several returned from overseas posts to assume new positions in government, while others watched events unfold closely, brainstorming new ways to give back from abroad.

Consideration #3: Alumni networking perceived to be central to applying scholarships programme experiences back at home

Interviewees noted that one alumnus, working alone, cannot change the country in significant ways. Instead, they believed a "critical mass" of individuals was necessary to share, build, and execute a vision for change. This was especially true among Georgian alumni, who reported that connections with other alumni, mostly living in the capital city, helped them acquire jobs, design projects and secure grants, and participate in policymaking and leadership activities. By contrast, alumni in Moldova said they wished that they could band together more successfully for ideas and support, although it was difficult with such a large proportion of their peers living abroad.

Alumni from both countries report that networking activities must be led by alumni themselves in order to integrate into and be trusted by the community. Both Moldovan and Georgian alumni said that they could inherently trust others who had received a scholarship, as the scholarship was a de facto endorsement of others' work ethic, skills, and values.

Designing programmes for success with the home country in mind

If programme success is measured, in part, by the participants' ability to influence their home countries, then it follows that the context – the unique characteristics of that country – must be accounted for. In the cases of Georgia and Moldova, three contextual elements emerged as having a significant role in how alumni perceive their contributions to national social and economic development. For those of us interested in researching, designing, and evaluating scholarship programmes, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned.

First, like everyone else, alumni are seeking quality work places, rewarding jobs, and decent salaries. In places where few opportunities exist, we should be careful to assume that alumni will return and seek employment in these difficult circumstances, especially in authoritarian or rigid governments. As one alternative, funders may consider – as several have already – providing career services or salary top-up schemes for scholarship alumni.

Second, alumni report experiencing a renewed interest in helping their country at a time of national revolution, when it appears the country is becoming more open. Scholarship funders and administrators may wish to capitalise on similar moments of political upheaval with additional programming or funding to encourage alumni to share their skills and knowledge during this opportune and dynamic window.

Third, scholarship programme graduates identify the power of alumni networks to help them excel in professional and civil society spheres. Programme administrators and funders can empower and encourage alumni to take ownership and build these networks, instead of having the hosting organization or local representatives' offices assume leadership.

In conclusion, when analysing the success of international scholarship schemes, it is critically important to understand home country context. Setting a simplistic measure for success (e.g. returning home) does not accurately incorporate the reality faced by students after graduation. From my research it was clear that scholarship alumni are eager to influence change, yet the conditions in the home country significantly influence how they are able to do this.