Upland girl overcomes mountains to pursue education

April 26, 2020 - 09:47

Chảo Thị Yến, a young woman from the Dao Tuyển ethnic minority in northwest Việt Nam has defied challenges to become the first woman from her community to earn a master’s degree abroad through a full-degree scholarship awarded by the European Union.

Chảo Thị Yến, a young woman from the Dao Tuyển ethnic minority in northwest Việt Nam has defied challenges to become the first woman from her community to earn a master’s degree abroad through a full-degree scholarship awarded by the European Union. She speaks with Bùi Quỳnh Hoa about her climb out of poverty and into a position to help children from ethnic minority areas across the country through her work with the Centre for People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature) in Hà Nội.


Chảo Thị Yến, a member of the Dao Tuyển ethnic minority from the northwest of Việt Nam, is inspiration to her community because of her efforts to escape from poverty. Photo courtesy of Chảo Thị Yến

Inner Sanctum: Could you tell us about yourself?

I am Chảo Thị Yến. I come from the Dao Tuyển ethnic minority in Ngám Xá Hamlet, Nậm Chạc Village in Lào Cai Province’s Bát Xát District. At present, I am working as a policy programme assistant at the Center for People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature). 

Inner Sanctum: What challenges did you face in your childhood?

Well, like most children in remote areas, we lived under poverty. We didn't have enough rice for meals all year-round. Having cassava instead of rice was a normal thing for us. Besides the lack of food, we did not have access to electricity and education, especially higher education.

People in my community believed that paid jobs like becoming teachers, doctors, etc. were for Kinh (Viet Nam's largest ethnicity) people, not for Dao. Hence, most of our children had to stop attending higher education when they completed secondary school. I was not an exception. My parents, relatives and neighbours used to say that "girls should not go to school" or "girls just need to know how to write their names, that’s enough". So I had to stop going to school when I finished 9th grade.


Yến (second from right) and her friends study at the University of Göttingen in Germany. Photo courtesy of Chảo Thị Yến

Inner Sanctum: What does studying mean to you? Why did you pursue a career full of difficulties and pressure? 

Primarily, studying meant “rice” to me and my family. It meant that if I went to school I would have enough rice to eat, and my family could have enough food to survive. It was the only way for us to escape from poverty. Then, going to school had further meaning to me. It helped me find ways to reduce the impact of natural disasters on local communities.

In 2016, two years after graduating with distinction from the Việt Nam National University of Forestry, I won a full scholarship, worth US$50,000, as part of the European Union's prestigious Erasmus Mundus Programme.

The grant allowed me to complete a master’s degree in sustainable forest and nature management at the University of Göttingen in Germany and the University of Padua in Italy.

Inner Sanctum: What were your feelings when you learned you had won the full-degree Erasmus scholarship awarded by the European Union?

It was a super feeling, so much that I didn't know how to express my feelings. I could not do anything except keep shouting “WOW WOW WOW” and “YEAH YEAH YEAH” many times. It was unbelievable. My heart was twinkling with the stars.

 Inner Sanctum: Was studying abroad challenging for you?

Not really. I got a fully-funded scholarship programme as you may know so I could focus on my studies without thinking about money and food for my survival. Besides, I met a lot of friends from different countries who were very kind, supportive and willing to help me whenever I was in trouble.


Yến (third from left) on a field excursion in Germany. Photo courtesy of Chảo Thị Yến

Inner Sanctum: You have mentioned how thankful you are for your teachers. Could you say something about them?

I have had a gap duration of three years, not on purpose, after I completed secondary school. During this period, my teacher Bùi Chí Thanh came to my home many times to convince my parents to allow me to go to school. Fortunately, after three years, my parents changed their minds and allowed me to pursue higher education. When I finished high school, I studied at the Việt Nam National University of Forestry with a major in natural resources management, an advanced programme in collaboration with Colorado State University in the US. Here I met Prof Lee McDonald, the co-ordinator of the programme, and Associate Prof Dr Bùi Xuân Dũng, my thesis supervisor. These two men have inspired and supported me to continue my studying career by introducing me to fully funded scholarship programmes in the US, Japan and Europe.

The three of them have been playing very important roles in my life. Without them, I could not have overcome the challenges of my life. 

Inner Sanctum: You made debut with the book Đường Ngược Chiều – Từ Bản Người Dao Đến Học Bổng Erasmus (Uphill Road to Erasmus Scholarship). Could you tell our readers about it?

This is an autobiography about my path to school. It took me two years to write, a detailed version of my rise from poverty to a position where I could help those who grew up with next to nothing. 

In fact, I think, in this story, I'm just a character representing upland children who want to go to school. The book not only talks about the difficulties on my way to school but also the stories of my childhood and cultural identity of ethnic minorities of the northwest region. My target group is mountainous children and students who are facing difficulties in achieving their dream of studying abroad, and those who are stuck in their life. The book can help those people have more energy and motivation to overcome the challenges to achieve their goals. Additionally, the book will help adults recall a part of their childhood memories which have been forgotten in a busy life.

Inner Sanctum: What is your dream? 

I hope I will always be strong and optimistic enough to overcome the challenges of life so I can make a contribution to help upland children go to school and support local communities to have a better life with my current and future jobs.

I also dream to become a hydrologist, but it seems to be harder now as I am working in a field far from hydrology.

Inner Sanctum: Have you got a plan for the future? 

In the long term, I am hoping to further my studies by perusing a PhD. However, I am not sure as I would also love to work to gain experience and to have financial stability.

Inner Sanctum: What will you do for your native village?

For my native village, I have not contributed anything yet. However, I am looking for projects in livelihood improvement that are appropriate for my locality. Furthermore, I am looking for educational funding to open a Dao Tuyển language class for local people in my village. Recently, people in my village are becoming aware of the importance of Dao writing as 100 per cent of my villagers are illiterate in the language.

My friend and I keep developing the scholarship fund of Prof Lee MacDonald, accordingly, 10 per cent of the revenue from selling the book will be donated to this scholarship fund to give to poor students studying at the Việt Nam National University of Forestry and ethnic minority students in the northwest of Việt Nam. VNS