In recent decades, college education has become increasingly important for women in both the developed and developing worlds, including Vietnam. Four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, economic advancement and social change have transformed Vietnam, creating employment and educational opportunities for many Vietnamese. Today, more and more young people, especially women, are going to school and attending college. Higher education has gained importance and prominence in modern Vietnamese society.
Previous studies examining the relationship between women and higher education have found that women attend college because they want jobs, careers, independence, and other benefits. (1) In these studies, researchers tend to focus on women's autonomy and agency, on the dynamic of women's college lives in comparison to men's, and on the structural matters that could affect women's access and retention as compared to men's. However, not many studies explore the impact of socio-cultural elements on women's college decisions. In addition, few studies in Vietnam adopt qualitative methods to explore the lives of young women in contemporary society. This research attempts to fill some of these gaps in the literature.
Utilizing data collected during two months of fieldwork in Vietnamese suburban and rural contexts, this study examines how social norms and ideologies influence and shape young women's beliefs about college education, such as why they obtain a higher education and what college means to them. This paper argues that although most people claim they attend college to get better jobs, acquiring employment is only a strategy and not a goal. In most cases, the ultimate goals of higher education are to gain respect and to become nondependent. For the purpose of this paper, respect is defined as having high social status or honorable treatment, and nondependence refers to a situation when a woman does not depend on her husband financially, and most of the decisions she makes are based on her understanding of duties to her family.
There have not been many ethnographic studies focusing on young Vietnamese women in higher education due to the Vietnamese government's restrictions on Western scholars researching in the country between the end of the Vietnam War (1975) and the 1990s. (2) However, research in the United States suggests that there are many factors that could possibly motivate and influence women's decisions about college and their plans for the future. Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart (3) conducted research at two universities in the Southern United States and found a peer culture that pressured college women to get involved in romantic relationships. For these young women, their academic lives and future plans did not seem to be as important as their social lives, in which the "culture of romance"--pursuing relationships with men was dominant. Those who were involved in this "culture of romance" reported feeling evaluated upon the type of men they dated and the treatment they received from the men, not their grades or career prospects. (4) While the second wave of the feminist movement that took place during the 1960s and 1970s promoted equal rights and independence for women, many highly-educated women in this study reported that they had lowered their career goals and planned to become financially dependent on their husbands.
Machung's 1989 study of female seniors at the University of California Berkeley offers an additional viewpoint on higher education. Young women in this research reported that they attended college because they wanted to "have it all," which meant having a happy family and a successful career at the same time. (5) These women planned to have a family with children, a place at a professional or graduate school upon graduation, and high-paying jobs. These students, however, expected their future husbands to be primarily responsible for the family's financial needs. They valued their future husbands' jobs higher than their own, and expressed a willingness to interrupt their own careers for up to twelve years to stay home and raise their children. (6)
In addition, these female Berkeley seniors planned to depend on their husbands to provide for the family during the interruption of their careers--to take a break or to give up their jobs--to become parents. (7) There may be significant cultural differences between Holland and Eisenhart's study sites, and the University of California Berkeley, which is a highly pressurized academic environment. Nevertheless, Machung's research suggests that, in the 1980s at least, young women had the agency to define their own plans for the future and expected their husbands to be part of the plans.
In the discussion about the motivation to work outside the home, Berkeley students who participated in Machung's study emphasize "self-fulfillment" and "independence" as their two main reasons for working. These women valued their job satisfaction over making money. They defined working in terms of self-satisfaction--as long as they felt good about their jobs, money did not really matter. They also reported wanting to be respected professionally by the people in their fields. (8) This study highlights the fact that these women discussed college education as a private matter, and that personal feelings were the main concerns regarding their working lives. Although they planned for competitive and high-paying jobs, their main concerns had little to do with money. Professional attainment and self-satisfaction remained dominant in these women's plans for the future.
Nearly a decade after Machung's study at Berkeley, Linda Stone and Nancy P. McKee's study reported similar responses from young women at Washington State University, suggesting that many American female college students still considered their husbands the breadwinners. (9) Many participants also indicated that they would depend on their husbands to provide for the family when they became parents. (10) Whether they were planning for a future with the expectation that they would become the primary financial provider or that the financial burden would fall on their future husbands, this study suggests that young Americans have the power to make decisions based on their own preferences.
Stone and McKee's interpretation of these findings highlights their view that college students not only acquired the knowledge they were taught, but at the same time also had the ability to analyze and positively act upon what they learned. Consistent with this view, Stone and McKee concluded that the women "were participating in the creation of an American cultural ideal that it is a woman's duty to stay home with their children." (11) Stone and McKee's argument is important because it again suggests that many highly educated young women have the power to decide whether or not they want to depend on their husbands.
The American studies mentioned above suggest that many young women in the United States view college as a way to fulfill their personal aspirations and possibly add additional income to the household. In these studies, researchers tend to view women's college experience through the lens of women's autonomy and agency. While these studies provide some insight into the factors that motivate women in college, the American experience can only tell us so much about the Vietnamese experience since the two countries are so culturally different. Sociocultural elements, such as familial obligations, which may influence and reshape women's educational decisions, remain largely unexplored.
Nguyen's research about traditions and changes in Vietnam found that marriage, not education, was perhaps the most important concern for women in a traditional Vietnamese family. Women were under pressure to marry because "they would only find a secure base from which to live and act within the framework of marriage." (12) Within the marriage, of utmost importance was the birth of a male child who would continue the husband's lineage and be responsible for ancestral worship. (13) Although this ideology may no longer be true for all young contemporary women, as many of them are now investing their time and energy in higher education, marriage continues to play a central role and dominate conversations about their futures.
Under the feudal system that existed up to first half of the twentieth century, educational opportunities were only available to a limited number of Vietnamese men. (14) Parents did not educate their daughters for three reasons. First, there was no economic incentive to spend money to educate girls because they would be married off and live with their husbands' families. Second, education for girls was believed to be unnecessary...