Visual sociology in Moldova: University students and advertisements

This post comes to you from Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova. I am here conducting interviews for my dissertation research on the relationship of international scholarship programs and national social and economic development. (If you’re interested, I can tell you more.) Moldova is a small, lovely country in Southeastern Europe, located between Romania and Ukraine.

As I’ve been walking around Chisinau these past two weeks, I have spent a lot of time near Moldova State University, unquestionably the country’s most prestigious university. Among the cafeterias and copy centers, I’ve noticed many images like this:

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Everywhere, it seems, students are being shown images of North America and Europe, with encouraging messages to pursue “the American dream,” study in the EU, or find the quickest, easiest way to emigrate to Canada. The images above are not the only ones; I have at least 5 more on my camera from today’s walk alone. There are also many advertisements for plane tickets to travel to nearby Italy, Turkey, or Greece. And there must be a hundred money exchange kiosks across the city of Chisinau.

DSCN1256With all these images, Chisinau seems to be sending its citizens – especially its brightest university students – a well-coordinated message: Leave Moldova. Go abroad. Your future is somewhere else.

Maybe I’m interpreting the images incorrectly. I only know a little about visual sociology – the study of how images tell the story of social life. The last time I studied the field in earnest was as an undergraduate student.

Yet it’s not only the images that relay this message. In my conversations with Moldovan friends, all of them have a sibling who lives abroad. In an interview, I am told, “every Moldovan thinks of leaving the country.” Another interviewee told me that of her graduating high school class, only 5 out of 26 classmates still lived in Moldova. Plus, when strangers learn I’m American, they want to talk about the green card lottery instead of about Michael Jackson or New York City. According to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 1 million Moldovans – roughly 25% of the nation’s population – are living abroad.

DSCN1265I believe mobility should be a right, and I pass no judgement on those Moldovans who have decided to live overseas or are planning to emigrate. What I am suggesting is that so many messages of encouragement to leave Moldova in the streets and storefronts around the State University sends a strong message. Leaving Moldova is obviously big business. Just who benefits from these educated students leaving the country? And if university students hope to use their university education to help the country prosper and grow, to which storefront do they go for that?

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Students at the Margins Worldwide: Words Matter

This is a blog post that I wrote following my participation in a workshop called “Students at the Margins and the Institutions that Serve Them: A Global Perspective” at the Salzburg Global Seminar. Photos are compliments of the Salzburg Global Seminar. This post is also included on Seminar’s blog

Session 537 commences

While at Salzburg Global Seminar this week, I have been thinking about the interplay among the words in our program title, “Students at the Margins and the Institutions that Serve Them: A Global Perspective.” I was attracted to this program because of three key phrases: “students at the margins,” “serve,” and “global.” My own research examines the role of international scholarships in providing students from low- and middle-income countries access to higher education unlikely available in their home countries.

Small group work at the session

Listening to other seminar participants speak over the past few days, I have come to realize how these key phrases are conceptualized across different cultures and contexts. “Students at the margins” is not always a minority population; in the case of South Africa, the definition includes those from majority Black population who have been denied access to higher education for much of the country’s history. “Serving” students at the margins goes far beyond providing access to higher education; it is also the idea of nurturing the university student to thrive in their courses or to find access to financial support to continue their studies. The term “global perspective” assumes a comparative study of local cultures, but it also calls attention to a lack of quality research facilities or transparent education systems in many students’ home countries.

For me, one of the key messages from this seminar is that words matter. Having a similar language allows people – both those leaders attending the seminar and those not fortunate enough to join us – to collaborate internationally to support students at the margins to access quality higher education. As an outcome of this seminar, a small working group is proposing to establish a glossary of terms related to students at the margins and higher education across the world. Our hope is that this tool will be helpful in building greater understanding and international cooperation on this important movement. As we have seen many times and in many places, commonly-understood language and precise messages are important to any social movement.

Building links for students at the margins

Many of us – certainly those at this Salzburg Global Seminar program – believe that higher education is central to developing future leaders, thinkers, and activists. Across the world, we see higher education student mobility rates increase, with many future leaders being exposed to excellent educational opportunities in other countries. Therefore, for me, access to international education is at the core of this idea of serving students on the margins. Being at Salzburg this week, surrounded by incredibly inspirational and talented individuals who want the best for their students, I have expanded and strengthened my understanding of students at the margins and have thought of new ways to support access to international education. I am sincerely grateful for this opportunity to be part of the Salzburg Global Seminar.

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International Higher Education & Professional Government in Ukraine

Hi there! As academic life has been in full swing, I am behind with the blog. And as summer break begins, I’m back with this story – one that isn’t getting much coverage in the western news – about the link between international higher education and political development in Ukraine.

As you know, starting in November last year, the Euromaidan movement fought for government reform. The movement stood for transparency in government, increased EU-Ukraine cooperation, improved human rights, and better higher education, among other things. Some people believe that many of the most vocal leaders were young people educated at universities in the west. Euromaidan presentation Dec 2013I was lucky to meet some of these young leaders late last year at a conference (low-quality photo included as evidence), and I was impressed with their loyalty to Ukraine and their passion for change.

By most accounts, the Euromaidan movement succeeded. President Yanukovych was removed from power in February. Many events have happened since – including the Russian intrusion into Crimea – but there’s not much attention given to all the hard work needed to rebuild a government and prepare for May elections.

I suggest that this is a crucial time in the country’s plan for a more progressive future, and that those students educated abroad can significantly contribute. We know that government, civil society, university, and community leaders influence democracy building, economic development, and social change. Young leaders educated overseas can bring their knowledge, skills, and experience to the aid of the nation’s development. And there’s research on this very topic: in one example, Antonio Spilimbergo has found that foreign-educated leaders promote democracy in their home country, but only if the foreign education is acquired in democratic countries.

Young leaders in Ukraine are savvy. I recently learned about their efforts to organize a website that pairs graduates of western universities with the new government, offering assistance and names of experts, often pro bono. Through the website, the group has been able to link individuals to the Ukrainian government’s Ministry of Economic Development, Education, and Infrastructure; identify a CFO for Naftogaz, the state entity that buys and sells energy resources (and was formerly notorious corrupt); and provide advisers to Members of Parliament.

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Screenshot from Professional Government’s website page. Subtitle reads “Ukrainian graduates of foreign universities initiative.”

The group is called Professional Government. Its vision is to develop and support a small but efficient government that is transparent, accountable, able to pay fair salaries and offer proper incentives (and thereby reduce bribery), and will reform its code and regulations to be more open to entrepreneurship and business opportunities. In a recent conversation with one of the group leaders, Alina Sviderska (who studied in Ukraine and in the UK), she noted that Professional Government’s long term goal is “to fill high government positions with experienced western educated individuals. We plan to make this project self-sustainable with a possibility to build a platform for reforms aimed at improving the investment climate.” In other words, tying international education directly to political and economic change in Ukraine.

If you want more information about Professional Government, ways to cooperate, or how to make a donation, check out the website or contact Alina via Facebook or LinkedIn. There’s also additional information about the project in English from The Harvard Crimson.

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“Extractive” Research and Its Prevention

I write from East Africa, where I am part of an international team collecting data on youth employment and job skills training.  Last Monday I was sitting in an office in Kampala where an NGO staff member thanked us for not doing extractive research.  He went on to say that many graduate students come to Uganda to learn something and then go home.  The results of their investigations benefit them: measured by finished dissertations, publications, or reports which might translate into promotions at work.  In sum, results that contribute to no Ugandan life directly.

East African Hands

Along the same lines, one of my research team members is currently seeking ways to share her dissertation research on Rwanda in Rwanda – in other words, to be anti-extractive.  Although she has numerous connections in the country, she is finding it challenging to plan how best to report her work, to whom, and in a way that catches attention.  It turns out that government officials aren’t knocking down her door to hear what she’s learned about their education projects.  Surely, this isn’t unique to Rwandan officials.

So, how does an international researcher navigate such a conundrum?  How can one really learn about a problem without extracting something – taking peoples’ time, raising disconcerting questions among community members, emitting greenhouse gases?  Perhaps the better question is: How can a researcher reduce his extraction?  What is the best way to share one’s work with those who might be interested or with those who might also benefit?

All of this has caused me to think about how the research cycle often unfolds.  The end product is a paper or presentation to an audience that rewards the individual.  Perhaps some of the ideas get published in a way that circulate back to the community which was studied.  Moreover, my guess is that many researchers share their findings with the host organization(s) or with their research participants.  (Although, I have been interviewed for several graduate students’ dissertations and none of those students has shared their final papers with me.  Hmph.)

So, thinking more broadly, what if we went one step further to require that research plans have a meaningful, well-designed “give back” component?  What if academic funding or dissertation committees required researchers to share their findings in a way that contributed to a community or organization or policy?  In other words, the investigator would be responsible for identifying a receptive audience for the results.  And, similar to the process to request permission to conduct the research, a plan to disseminate the results must be delineated in advance, approved by all parties, and considered as part of funding proposals?  “Giving back” would not be an afterthought.

photo of computer in BukobaUnder these East African skies, I might be dreaming a bit too boldly.  Sometimes my activism side overpowers an intellectual disposition.  Yet, I think there is space for the academic community to think more broadly about how their research might benefit others as part of the planning process for the research itself.  It is just one of several gaps in the research-practice divide, yet one that could have a significant impact in the ways that international research is conceived and disseminated.  What do you think?  Asante sana.

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Diaspora in Higher Education Development

While flying Air France recently, I flipped through their in-flight magazine and came upon this figure: “$300 billion: The amount of money sent by émigrés all over the world back to their country of origin every year – triple the amount of development aid.”

That is an astonishing amount of money.  And according to a World Bank memo, it falls short.  The actual amount of remittances sent in 2012 is over $400 billion!  These astounding figures illustrate a recent trend in increasing attention paid to the role of diaspora in their home country’s development.

For example, a recent report Divided Diasporas: Southern Africans in Canada argues that migration is, or could be, good for international development, as few migrants cut their ties back home.  Moreover, the authors argue for diaspora engagement in terms of “triple-win” – activities which benefit the sending country, the receiving country, and for the migrant and her family.  This is a positive approach to immigration in a country where 80% of new migrants come from developing countries.

Just south of the border, Hillary Clinton has started up the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance in 2011.  Its aim is promote five activities among diaspora groups around the world: entrepreneurship, volunteerism, philanthropy, social innovation, and diplomacy.  Although still heavily dominated by American groups, the organization looks to promote diaspora involvement in international development worldwide.

Despite this recent attention, diasporas’ contributions to their home countries is nothing new.  Immigrants have long been sending remittances and other goods, managing businesses in their home countries, assisting in removing their family and friends from unsafe environments, and traveling back and forth regularly.  They also, of course, serve as international ambassadors to educate their new neighbors.

All of this has got me thinking:  how can diaspora populations develop higher education directly?

The first thing that comes to mind is scholarships (it is my mind, after all), for either national or international higher education.  Diaspora scholarship funding typically goes directly to families or through programs like the Educate Lanka Foundation, which enables students to access the free education in Sri Lanka.  While many of these efforts are aimed at primary and secondary education, there are a few exceptions.  One is the Haitian Education and Leadership Program based in New York City.

A second way diaspora communities contribute to higher education is through émigré  researchers examining problems and situations in their native countries.  This must be quite common, as I can think of numerous examples of University of Minnesota academics who are engaged in such activities.  However, I can’t help but wonder how much of their work gets into hands of the thinkers and decision-makers in the country of origin.

A final way diaspora academics give back is through teaching higher education courses in the home country.  I have read a report of African academics in the UK who noted a high level of commitment to contributing to their home countries; they were very interested returning for short stays to teach, but they did not want to return permanently.  I don’t know any émigré academics who do this, and I’d be interested to hear about successful examples.

With the rise in technology, virtual teaching and online courses led by diaspora professors are also a possibility.  I’ll leave you with one cool example in Zimbabwe.  A team of émigré academics have come together to support the University of Zimbabwe’s College of Health Sciences, which is struggling with a lack of teaching staff as the higher education system suffers under the weight of Zimbabwe’s political and economic problems.  Through a partnership with King’s College London and other universities, lectures are being streamed simultaneously into Zimbabwe, at no cost to the latter institution or its students.  Cool, right?  More information about this project is available here.

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A Side Project: On Standardized Testing

If you have a chance, check out a post I wrote for Transparency International‘s blog, the Space for Transparency.  The topic is the recent Atlanta Teacher’s scandal, and the piece is called The Atlanta Scandal: Standardized Testing and the Corruption of U.S. Education.

It’s not higher education.  And it’s not related to international development.  But it’s fascinating nevertheless!

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Where do those U.S. Doctorates go?

Training of future faculty, researchers, and private and non-profit leaders often happens at foreign universities. “Bright young things,” my tongue-and-cheek term for highly intelligent and talented youth, leave their home countries for the best education they can receive and world-class universities, many in the United States, welcome these students. According to new research by the U.S. National Science Foundation, many of these bright young things do not return home after they finish their U.S. degree.

The N.S.F.’s recent report provides data that contributes to two theories related to higher education and international development. First, bright young things make plans to stay in America after receiving their U.S. doctorate. “Among recent doctoral graduates (academic years 2001-2007) holding a temporary U.S. resident visa, 73.3% reported…that their immediate postgraduation plan was to live in the United States after receiving their degree.” We cannot, unfortunately, match this data with what others (home governments or private sponsors, for example) are expecting for these students. But it is clear that a majority of the foreign scholars are not planning to return to their home countries and contribute to a national development agenda immediately.

Moreover, it looks like foreign-born earners of U.S. Doctorates not only plan to stay. A significant number–67.5% of those holding a temporary U.S. visa–succeed. “Among foreign graduates who did not return to their country of origin, the United States was the most popular destination, with 88.9% reporting living in the United States. For this group, the European Union was the second most popular destination (3.7%), and Asia and Canada tied for third (2.7% and 2.6%, respectively). […] Foreign students from China, countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, and India reported distinctly low rates of returning to their home countries (3.7%, 4.1%, and 5.2%, respectively) compared with those from other foreign countries.” P. Pushkar just wrote an editorial on this topic, using the title, India’s Brain Drain Persists. (Hope you can access this without membership to The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The second relevant-to-this-blog theory has to do with academic field of these doctorate earners. Check out the graph below (credit: N.S.F.; graph found here).  The lightest colored bar in each category represents foreign-born Ph.D.s who live in the United States.  In all categories except for social science, the foreign-born citizens living in the United States outnumber the foreign citizens living abroad.

Distribution of field of degree, by citizenship at the time of graduation and current residencySo, we can see that a majority of the U.S.-trained scientists, statisticians, engineers, and health experts–all very important fields for the work of international development–do not leave the United States for positions in their home countries where their expertise more readily contribute to national development. Hmph.

Are these findings surprising? Deflating? (To the international development optimists like me, yes.) Is this “brain drain” expressed in graphs?

Or is it the simple result of the global economy? Perhaps the U.S. universities and private enterprises hiring these folks are paying well, probably much better than home institutions. If you continue to dig into the report, you’ll see that most foreign citizens employed in the United States are employed either by 4-year institutions or private, for-profit enterprises (each employ about 43% of all foreign citizens employed in the U.S.).

This is all very interesting, indeed. As these results reflect doctoral graduates since (roughly) 2001, I’d be very interested to see where the foreign citizens end up 10-25 years after finishing their Ph.Ds. Do more bright young things return home once they are no longer as young?

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