International students returning home a practical move, a personal choice

November 20, 2022 | 06:50 pm PT
Bui Minh Duc Media specialist
Hoang, who got to the United States six years before I did, was about to finish his Master's degree at a prestigious university. Should he stay on or return home?

As friends, we discussed this question at length. With a degree in Computer Science, Hoang would have little trouble finding a good job in the U.S. However, he decided to return home.

His logic was this: He would have many more opportunities in Vietnam, while in the U.S., he would have to compete with many talented international students from countries like India or China, without many competitive advantages.

I think Hoang is being very practical and realistic. I like this attitude a lot.

About 21,600 Vietnamese students enrolled in the U.S. in the 2020-2021 school year. Though there are no official statistics on how many return home after graduating, based on the prevailing opinion among the Vietnamese student community there, I can say that many are deciding to come home after finishing their degrees. They have several reasons for this, including the pressure of finding a position with good social standing to an actually higher salary.

To explain this a bit more, if we only look at the salary on paper, jobs in the U.S. pay much more than in Vietnam. However, the truth is that salaries for international students are usually at an average level for American society, and most of it will be eaten by the cost of living.

A study by Real Estate Witch on USA Today shows that though the starting salary of new graduates and engineers in the U.S. is approximately $55,260 per year or $4,605 a month. Average rent in the U.S. is around $1,500 a month or one-third of the monthly salary of most fresh graduates and engineers. After taxes and other expenses, there's not much to take home or save.

Then there are other factors to contend with when living abroad, like geographical and cultural barriers. Many Vietnamese people never really get used to the long winter in Western countries, which could potentially lead to winter blues and severe mental issues. Meanwhile, the lack of a welcoming attitude from the receiving society, which might include open racism, is a problem in many countries, especially the U.S.

Assimilation is even tougher for students studying abroad later in life, when they are already 25 years or older. They are often caught off guard by social norms that are different from the established patterns of life, social understanding and expectations that they have gotten used to at home.

In short, studying and working abroad is not the smooth sailing to prosperity and fulfillment that many expect. It is a rocky, challenging journey. At a certain point, some people say – enough.

Don't romanticize

Students walk around the University of Michigan campus, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S., August 19, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Emily Elconin

Students walk around the University of Michigan campus, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S., August 19, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Emily Elconin

As a student studying abroad myself, I am taken aback when I read comments about international students "sacrificing" their chances abroad to come home, with this idealized and romanticized image of helping their country.

This reflects an old belief that staying and working abroad is the most favorable option; and doing anything else entails either a personal sacrifice for a greater cause or simply indicates a failed investment.

Such outdated beliefs place tremendous pressure on returning students – making them feel like a failure for not being able to achieve the idealized dream of having a job and settling abroad or having to suffer constant comparisons when working at home, as if none of their achievements abroad mattered.

Some students return home for purely personal reasons, while others find more opportunities for personal growth with better compensation in Vietnam.

Life and work are inseparable. If students find life in Vietnam more enjoyable than abroad, they should feel free to pursue that choice regardless of what others might think or say.

In this flat world, young people are not limited by the geographical boundary of any nation. Wherever they are, they can make a career, they can help other people and they can convey a good image of Vietnam to the world. This way, they are still contributing to the home country.

Students returning home from abroad should be a normal phenomenon, a decision made by people for their own good; a decision they have every right to make without being judged either way.

*Bui Minh Duc is a media specialist at non-profit iSEE and a freelance reporter.

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