January 27, 2016
Vilayvone was sure she would never get into college. Her mother and father, a retired soldier, ran a small farm in a rural part of Laos to raise their seven children. Despite everyone waking before dawn to work on the farm, the family always lacked for food and money. “My siblings and I tried to find ways to continue our studies and reduce our parents’ burden,” said Vilayvone, who also sold lottery tickets in the evenings after school to bring in income.
She and her sister were able to attend secondary school thanks to Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, which provides girls with material support and life skills education to negotiate key life decisions. But after managing to send her brothers to college, followed by her father’s sudden illness, her parents couldn’t afford college for Vilayvone. “I would have to get a full scholarship,” said Vilayvone, “and with my average grades I assumed that was impossible.”
Then, as Vilayvone remembers it, Room to Read invited her on a trip that changed her life.
As part of Life Skills training, Room to Read regularly takes participants in its Girls’ Education Program on ‘exposure trips’ to help them explore their career options and empower them to make informed decisions about their future. Typically these field trips expand on life skills lessons, taking students to universities to help them prepare for tertiary education; to workplaces to introduce them to careers in a particular industry, such as journalism or hospitality; or on outings to fun, educational places, such as museums and historical sites, where the girls can practice skills like relationship building.
In 2014 Room to Read invited Vilayvone and 24 other program participants on an exposure trip to Vientiane to visit Souphanouvong University. They were accompanied by the girls’ social mobilizer, Ms. Sylar, who acts as a mentor to participants. Even though Vilayvone believed higher education was beyond her reach, she was curious to see what college life was like.
“Most of our students are poor rural villagers,” said Ms. Sylar, who had accompanied another group of participants to Souphanouvong last spring. “The only working women they see are teachers and nurses so they tend to think these are the only career options available to them. The exposure trips acquaint them with campus life and encourage them to explore careers beyond the usual choices.”
Vilayvone recalled how the night before the trip she could barely sleep and was so afraid of missing her ride she got ready two hours early. She had never been outside of her province before. During last year’s trip, Ms. Sylar led the girls in song and discussion during the van ride to put them at ease.
“What do you want to become?” Ms. Sylar asked them from the front of the van.
“A teacher!” most of the girls said in unison.
Vilayvone will never forget the first thing that came to mind when the van pulled up to the university: “It was the biggest school I had ever seen!” she said. After delivering a presentation to the girls on college life and the admissions process, the dean of the university took them on a tour of the campus where they met faculty in fields such as economics, agriculture, communications and technology to learn about the careers they lead to. “I particularly fell in love with the pharmacy program,” said Vilayvone. “I enjoyed chemistry as a student and was always fascinated with how we create formulas to cure diseases.”
Last spring’s exposure trip was Ms. Sylar’s second and she’s looking forward to a third. She said she appreciates the positive impact they have on her students: “Before they go on the trip most girls want to start working right after graduation,” she noted. “Now they can see with their own eyes that the university has a lot to offer. Already some of them are asking about government scholarships and filling out college applications. It’s been a huge success for us.”
Noy, who went on last year’s trip, agreed. “After the dean’s presentation I realized the importance of college,” she said. “During the trip I decided, ‘I want to be here and continue my education.’”
On the ride home, Ms. Sylar turned to the girls again and asked them what they wanted to become. This time they imagined themselves in careers from communications and technology to engineering.
“I want to be the first female pilot in Laos!” a girl shouted from the back of the van.
“This is far from the traditional career choices for these girls,” Ms. Sylar remarked. One thing was certain: the world was getting bigger for them.
“They said I should accept the reality that higher education is not for the poor like us.”
Vilayvone had been just as inspired by the exposure visit she took. “On the way back many ideas about my future kept pumping through my head,” she said. “I realized I was such a coward to quit before I even knew about the college admissions process.” Soon after she got back Vilayvone put aside her doubts and submitted an application to Souphanouvong University. To her amazement they accepted her, though on a partial scholarship. Vilayvone’s joy soon vanished when she learned her parents couldn’t afford it and she had to turn it down.
“My neighbor told me I should accept the reality that higher education is not for the poor like us,” Vilayvone’s mother explained. “She said I should not expect that all my kids will go to college.” After all, none of the neighbor’s children had made it beyond secondary school. “She also warned me,” her mother went on, “that if all my children go to college, who will help out when I get older?”
But Vilayvone wasn’t ready to give up just yet and she began investigating every resource she could find. With the help of the Laos Girls’ Education Program, she found a two-year scholarship through the Vientiane Professional Development College where, for the past year, she has been studying Business Administration. Although it’s not the major she’d initially hoped for, Vilayvone is confident she will one day succeed in becoming a pharmacist.
“Now that I’m in college and living in Vientiane I’m aware of the scholarships available to me and I’m closer to my goal,” she enthused. “It may take some time but I believe the opportunity is coming to me.”
When asked what role the exposure trip played in getting her to where she is today, Vilayvone replied without missing a beat: “This was the most memorable experience of my life.”
Learn more about Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program.