A UM Global Studies Scholarship allowed Tho Thi to come from Ho Chi Minh City to Maastricht to study Global Studies, the interdisciplinary bachelor’s programme around complex global issues taught by all six faculties. Here, she talks about her long journey to realising her ambition to study abroad.
“It has always been my dream to study abroad,” remembers Tho Thi. “The Vietnamese education system is very conservative; everything is based on rote learning. There’s not much freedom to question or do your own research.” Fortunately, Tho’s family situation encouraged critical thinking and navigating ambiguity. Her mother’s parents were fighting for the US military, whereas her father’s fought for the Vietnamese communist party. “I grew up seeing things from different perspectives.”
UM and Global Studies are an ideal fit then – but Tho admits that the main issue for students like her is financial: “It doesn’t matter how much I like the programme, university or city; I just couldn’t afford it without a scholarship.” The UM Global Studies Scholarship also allowed her to choose a subject she cares about. “Many Asian students don’t want to burden their families without a high probability of a career and financial success.” Still, she’s happy to point out that the programme awards a BSc.
A long and bumpy road
Initially, Tho considered studying in Germany because of the free tuition. After high school, she had studied German linguistics at a Vietnamese college, although she is quick to qualify that 80% of her time was spent studying compulsory foundational courses. To qualify for a German university, she would have to go through Studienkolleg, a preparatory course. “I realised that my studies wouldn’t help me improve my German sufficiently, so I took a gap year to become an au pair in Germany. It was great – until COVID happened…”
Eventually, she got into the Studienkolleg, which, due to COVID restrictions, was taught online. The pandemic had also taken a toll on her family’s financial situation and Tho had become the sole provider working as an interpreter. Returning to Vietnam to study and work remotely was the only financially feasible option. “However, at the end of the programme, we were required to come back to Germany for one final examination – but that was impossible for me.”
Tho had to start from scratch. “I always remained dedicated to studying, so I kept looking for options. She had already been offered a Holland Scholarship from the University of Amsterdam, however “it’s not a full scholarship but a smaller one-off payment, so it wasn’t feasible.” It had become clear though that Dutch universities were very attractive. “English is a second language here. There were so many options for great academic programmes in English, which is not the case in other European countries.”
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"It might not be within my power to change things but I want to use my life to do something about it at least.”
Tho Thi, Global Studies
Arguably even bigger than Maastricht: Ho Chi Minh City
Wikimedia Commons | Jim Chen | CC BY-SA 2.0
Global Studies – the end that came with the means
Then, Tho came across the new and highly interdisciplinary Global Studies. “I really like communications but I’m also interested in psychology, public health and law – just not enough to study any of them full time. It’s great that the programme offers a bit of everything.” And, best of all, it was financially feasible. “It’s one of the very few full scholarships I could find for a bachelor’s programme.”
The UM Global Studies Scholarship offers a tuition fee waiver and monthly stipend for top-performing bachelor’s students from the Global South. “I loved just how inclusive the scholarship is. You don’t have to be fresh out of high school, it doesn’t have to be your first application, the letter of recommendation doesn’t have to be from an academic, etc.” The website provided all the information necessary to start writing the application, which however required a lot of self-reflection and research. “Everything went exactly according to schedule and I was very excited when I received the good news.”
Tho appreciated the extensive support from UM’s Scholarship Office with the visa application, housing, and even travel information. “It really made for a soft landing, especially in combination with the pre-academic training where you can get used to Problem-Based Learning, meet all the other scholarship recipients and build a network.” Global Studies is what she hoped it would be. “The founder and director are really open and passionate and they pass on that ethos to the students. Because it’s such a young programme, it feels like we’re contributing to shaping it.”
Her perspective too is a valuable contribution. “There so many different nationalities in the programme but I’m the only Asian in my study group. Most students are aware of their privilege but are still approaching things – naturally – from a Western point of view, so I do think I can contribute my perspective and learn by understanding theirs.”
Having grown up in Ho Chi Minh City, the metropolitan area of which counts more inhabitants than the Netherlands, Maastricht is certainly a gear change – but because of her prior experiences living in Germany not really a culture shock. “The people are actually much friendlier than I would have thought and I think I’m integrating quite well.” So far, she particularly enjoyed the PAS Festival. “It’s really nice to see how different generations come together to enjoy themselves.”
While Global Studies leaves its graduates with many options, Tho does have an idea what she wants to achieve. “I would like to advocate for freedom of speech in Vietnam. Politics is still a taboo in daily life. We can’t criticise the government and their actions; if you’re trying to organise a protest online you would likely be fined or even go to jail. There are prisoners of conscience. It might not be within my power to change things but I want to use my life to do something about it at least.”
Mobility is key
Mobility, both in- and outgoing, is a priority and a strength of UM, one of the most international universities in the world. International scholarships are one way to attract international talent and to accelerate the personal and academic growth of current UM students. We take a look at some of the people who have won those scholarships and their experiences.