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The Return Home and the Paradox of Privilege

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Helen Leale-Greene, the Director of HALI organization Our Moon, recently completed her Master’s degree in Education and International Development, researching and writing her dissertation on the attitudes and perspectives of HALI students toward returning home to Africa after international study.  Janet Heinonen, Director of the East African Scholars Fund, interviews her for the HALI blog:

Janet: Moving to your research, what were your original assumptions about the value of study abroad for HALI students and your biggest surprises?

Helen: My overriding research assumption that it is beneficial for HALI students to study abroad was certainly borne out, especially with the challenges facing universities across the continent based on years of limited funding. But there are many challenges for the students along the way as well, and they require significant support.

My assumptions based on students I had worked with, were that they wanted to return home after studying abroad. They certainly have a strong desire when they start our programs  to contribute to their communities or country in some way. But I also realized that it becomes progressively harder for them to return once they have started. Some come from very difficult homes and may prefer to be away from them. My research found that all want to contribute in some way and a large majority wishes to return home. There were some that saw themselves as global citizens and believed they should work from wherever they can make the best contribution.

There is also an assumption that, in some way, HALI students are more altruistic than other people – that they worry less about having material possessions and will put up with hardships that their Western counterparts will not. This assumption was valid. Students talked about middle-classed African kids being able to choose where to study, choose whether they wanted to return home and also where they worked. Many felt that it is left to the HALI students to consider their social responsibility to their country.

I interviewed students not only from Zambia, but also from Zimbabwe and Uganda, so I was intrigued to identify the differences between the motivations and fears of those from different nationalities. Certainly at the time of writing Zimbabwean students were more reluctant to return home. It will be interesting how this develops over the coming months since the changes in the country. Most Zambians and Ugandans were more prepared to return home.

There is an assumption that HALI students develop the appropriate skills and dispositions as well as knowledge to return home and make a more positive contribution than if they had just studied for a degree in their countries of origin. I wanted to find out if this is indeed the case, whether students preferred to study for a Masters, PhD or gain work experience before returning home, especially in the light of current UK and US visa restrictions on working post study.


Janet: How many students within your sample have returned home after completing their studies?

Helen: Most participants are still in education – it takes significant time to get through the system. Almost all the students preferred to stay abroad to study for a Master’s degree before returning home as they felt that they may not be in any better a position than students who had studied at home. In fact, they could be in a worse situation as some recruiters discriminate against those who have studied abroad and are even protective of their own jobs. This is part of the justification for studying to a higher level as they found there was less of a problem being recruited with a Master’s because many of their bosses (also with Master’s degrees) had also studied abroad.

Of the group I interviewed, roughly one-third had completed their studies. Five out of the seven had returned home. Of the two still abroad, one was working full time but also managing to complete a Master’s locally. He sees himself operating at the global level and although he wants to contribute, he sees those contributions helping many developing countries and not restricting his solutions just to Zambia. He is a computer scientist and may well be better off using his global connections and resources available to him in Silicon Valley where he currently works and resides. The other was a Zimbabwean HALI student. He has secured a job in mechanical engineering within the UK and plans to stay for another year. He expects eventually to return to Zimbabwe, maybe via South Africa.


Janet: How well prepared do you think HALI students are to return home?

Helen: The students best prepared to return home were those who had gained some work experience or volunteering, preferably in both their home countries as well as abroad. This gave them the benefit not only of developing workplace practical applications of their theoretical knowledge but also contacts both at home and abroad. They all saw significant value in this, although there are a number of universities that do not provide any opportunities for students to return home during their entire undergraduate programme.


Janet: You said that there were some surprise findings in your research. What were they?

Helen: Students talked about transformational experiences happening outside the classroom. These experiences included studying within yet another country for maybe a semester, work experience and volunteering, and being part of a global network of similar HALI students.

On face value, this may seem surprising, especially for those studying in some of the world’s top universities, but I believe that it is because once they are there, this becomes their normal life – clearly studying abroad in itself is transformational. There was a feeling among participants that these experiences outside the classroom, however, had an exponential impact on the value they received from studying abroad.

The other surprise is that any time spent abroad is transformational and has a trickle-down effect. For instance, two of my former Zambian students are currently studying at University of Zambia. They have secured important positions within their respective departments and hope to work on collaborative projects. I don’t think this is just coincidental, but is the result of having developed different mind sets and having spent significant time with like-minded people.


Janet: What are the skills that HALI students really require to make the most of their scholarships?

Helen: The skills are mostly around gaining relevant work experience or volunteering. This may be after their degrees or through internships. One of the things that concerns me is that the UK, for instance, has become so strict at providing a visa at the end of a period of study to be able to obtain these skills. America appears to be moving towards a toughened approach as well. In the face of my findings, this would seem detrimental to the students, almost to the extent that they are invalidating the investment in the students to obtain their degrees. In the UK, it is still possible for students to gain paid internships but the issue is that many companies use internships as part of their process of recruitment, so it is still extremely competitive for HALI students.


Janet: What about the concern that we all have about students’ transition during their first year?

Helen: All the students interviewed, bar one, found the first year at university a struggle, even though most had already spent time abroad to study for the IB. There are issues with adjusting to the campus, new expectations in terms of grading, how to behave, the different emphasis on religion, not having familiar food and the fact that it often takes time to make new friends. Ironically, the person who had no trouble settling in was the one student of my sample that had dropped out. He gained very good grades, enjoyed his courses and studied way beyond the requirements of his various courses. However, he felt so far removed from the struggle faced within his country and family, that he did not want to spend more time studying.

The other surprise for those studying in America was the racial tension that exists. Some said that it was the first time they really understood what it meant to be black. This was especially true of those from Zambia. Over 90% of the population is Christian and a similar proportion is black. Those from the more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have come across anyone who isn’t black and Christian in their day-to-day lives. HALI students were often surprised by the difference in attitude of black Americans compared to black Africans.


Janet: And what about dealing with expectations from home?

Helen: These are all too commonplace and range from conflicts between parents wanting their children to stay abroad after their degree (partly due to better opportunities but also for the prestige of them being able to say that their children are abroad) to sending money home. Some HALI students are exceptionally resourceful and manage their money so well that they send significant sums home. This can take the pressure off them financially, but can also set a precedent and maintain a dependency relationship. However, there are other students that are less able to send money home because of the terms of their scholarship. One participant went home for the summer holiday to do an internship. She was constantly expected to provide for her family and they assumed that she was really rich. It was a constant effort for her to explain that she was a student and although she had a campus job, the condition of her scholarship was that she paid her earnings back to offset a small loan granted by the university. With many having such large families, it also becomes an issue about whose education they will support, whose meals they will provide and who they will help.


Janet: How do they avoid the allure of staying abroad given the pressure to earn a lot of money?

Helen: Some students don’t have the opportunity to stay abroad; some scholarship programs require them to return immediately. This doesn’t seem the right solution for everyone. Other students bemoaned the pressure to return abroad, saying that they wanted to return when the time is right for them. They didn’t like that feeling of it being a life-time debt.


Janet: In contrast, one of my students worked for Microsoft for two years but quickly realised that he would be able to do in Kenya in a few years what could take 15 years at Microsoft.

Helen: The conclusion I reached was that students should return home when it feels right for them. However, I think there is a risk if they stay away too long, it becomes increasingly difficult. One student will have been away for ten years by the time she completes her PhD and has been home rarely. She wants to return at the end, but she doesn’t have strong networks at home and there are so many new procedures in place. As she points out, they didn’t even have mobile phones when she left!

It is possibly easier for independent scholarship providers to accommodate different scenarios than the universities themselves who are motivated in a different way. Yet, if it is worth a university’s while to provide the scholarship, then they should be listening to the students and what they want or learning about those different scenarios.

N.B. Helen’s detailed dissertation and a summary of its findings can be obtained from Helen directly via her email:


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