| (Photo courtesy of Chao Thi Yen)
Chao Thi Yen spent her childhood in poverty, but was determined to study hard and change her life.
“Like most children in remote areas, we lived in poverty. We didn’t have enough rice for meals all year round. Eating cassava instead of rice was a normal thing for us. Besides the lack of food, we did not have access to electricity or education. My teacher said we should go to school to have a better life,” said Yen.
Yen began attending school when she was 4 years old. Due to her family’s financial difficulties, Yen had to stop going to school when she finished 9th grade and work to support her family.
“My relatives and neighbors used to say that ‘girls should not go to school.’ I had to persuade my parents to let me go back to school,” she said.
In 10th grade, Yen was the top student in her class.
“A friend asked me why I studied hard but still lived in poverty. That made me sad, and even more determined to study for the college entrance exam and change my life,” Yen recalled.
Yen passed the entrance exam for the Vietnam National University of Forestry in Hanoi. In 2016, two years after graduating from the university, she won a full scholarship, worth 50,000 USD, as part of the European Union's prestigious Erasmus Mundus program. The grant allowed her 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.
“I was surprised to receive the scholarship. Studying overseas changed my way of thinking a lot. I used to think that I went to school to escape poverty. But now, I study and work to help others,” said Yen.
Mr. Chao Kim Son, Yen’s father, is very proud of his daughter, “My neighbors said to me that girls don’t need to study, just work and get married. But Yen has helped to change their thinking. Now, more and more local families are sending their children to school.”
Yen now works for a non-governmental organization specialized in forest resources.
She recently published an autobiography titled Against the Odds — From Dao Ethnic Village to Erasmus Mundus Scholarship that describes her journey from the rural village in Vietnam where she was born to become the first Erasmus scholarship recipient in her community.