The Latest

What Happens When You Take Girls’ Education in Laos Beyond the Classroom?

January 27, 2016

“This was the most memorable experience of my life.” Vilayvone

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.

Participants in our Girls’ Education Program tour Souphanouvong University. Most were unaware of the careers available to them with a college degree.

Life skills education on the road

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.

Participants see the capital of Laos for the first time on their visit to Souphanouvong University.

“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.”

Girls’ education in college

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.

Participants listen to the dean’s presentation on college life and the admissions process before taking a tour of Souphanouvong University.

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.”

How the world got bigger

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.”

Girls’ Education Program participants enjoy lunch during a trip to Souphanouvong University.

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.

“They said I should accept the reality that higher education is not for the poor like us.”

“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?”

The hunt for a Lao scholarship

Girls’ Education alumna Vilayvone did not think she would ever make it to college.

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.

Related Articles

No one had ever told Phimya she was equal to others – until now


August 31, 2018

Girls' Education, Laos

Read More >

The Nonprofit Using Scavenger Hunts to Research Girls' Education


November 21, 2016

Girls' Education, India

Read More >

Vietnam’s Girls’ Education Class of 2014: Where Are They Now?


November 03, 2016

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Measuring the Effectiveness of a Life Skills Education


November 03, 2016

Girls' Education, India

Read More >

Multiyear Strategizing at This Year’s Country Management Conference


October 18, 2016

Literacy, India

Read More >

How Her Mother Inspired Nirupa to Beat the Odds


May 08, 2016

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

A Year After the Nepal Earthquake, a Survivor Finds Strength at School


April 22, 2016

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

For India’s School Girls, How One Father’s Support Gets Multiplied


March 14, 2016

Girls' Education, India

Read More >

John Wood: My Three-Phrase Philosophy for Changing the World Through Education


John Wood

| November 13, 2015

Literacy, Asia

Read More >

#ThankstoEducation We Can Help Our Children Reach Their Dreams


November 09, 2015

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

#ThankstoEducation I Can Teach Girls the Skills They Need to Make Key Life Decis...


November 06, 2015

Girls' Education, India

Read More >

#ThankstoEducation I Can Change My Family’s Destiny for the Better


November 04, 2015

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

International Day of the Girl: Meet Shabnam Whose Courage Has Inspired Hundreds ...


October 09, 2015

Girls' Education, India

Read More >

She Didn’t Know It Was Her Wedding Day


May 07, 2015

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

After Devastating Flood in Nepal, Room to Read Team Bands Together to Bring Reli...


January 28, 2015

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

“The Little One” Finds Her Voice


January 19, 2015

Girls' Education, Laos

Read More >

They Called Her a “Night Girl,” But She Refused To Drop Out


December 30, 2014

Girls' Education, Laos

Read More >

VIDEO: The story of a girl worth celebrating on this International Day of the Gi...


October 10, 2014

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Show and Tell: Boys and Girls Celebrate Women in Laos


March 20, 2014

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

International Women’s Day: Dreaming of Olympic Gold in Nepal


March 04, 2014

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Reconnecting with "Nurse Prem" in Nepal


December 16, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Guest Blog: Atlassian Foundation Sees Their Investments at Work in Cambodia


December 11, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

A "Shining Moonlight" For Girls Everywhere


November 25, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Show and Tell: Innovating for Girls’ Education


October 14, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

In Honor of International Day of the Girl Child: From Nepal to New Jersey


October 07, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

In Laos, Life Skills Training and Parental Support Help Sisters find Strength


August 12, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

In Honor of Malala Day: The Power of Perseverance


July 12, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Guest Blog by Author Manjushree Thapa: Meeting Some of Nepal's Extraordinary Gir...


June 21, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Tune in: Suma’s Story Comes to CNN this Sunday!


June 13, 2013

Girls' Education, Asia

Read More >

Social Mobilizers in India and Vietnam Get a Boost from Technology Pilot


May 20, 2013

Girls' Education, India

Read More >