Alumni success stories

 

Since 1963, the Australian Government has been providing Scholarships to Laos. Up to 50 Australia Awards Scholarships are offered annually with 50% being awarded to employees of the Government of Laos and 50% to the Open category.  This has resulted in over 1,100 awardees successfully obtaining tertiary qualifications in Australia at TAFE, Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels of study and returning to Laos to apply their new skills and qualifications in the development context.  The success of the scholarship programs in Laos is clearly demonstrated in the consistent graduation rates of between 97 and 99 per cent.

 

Phavanhna Douangboupha, University of New South Wales

Buavanh Viravong (Bank), University of Melbourne


Phavanhna’s Story

Alumna: Ms. Phavanhna Douangboupha
Institution: University of Newcastle, NSW
Scholarship: Australian Development Scholarship (ADS) Open Category
Period: 2000- 2005 
Discipline: Bachelor of Engineering in Information Technology
Qualification: Bachelor Degree
Current career: Deputy Director of Division of Administrative Cooperation and Legal Division, Ministry of Post and Telecommunication

Family background and desire to study in Australia

Phavanhna is the youngest daughter of the Douang Boupha family. She was brought up in a big extended family, having grandparents and cousins around. Like other Lao kids, Phavanhna went to government schools from elementary to upper secondary schools and she learned a second language, French, when she was at secondary school. Influenced by two older sisters and her parents, Phavanhna then started to learn English at Vientiane College. She found switching from French to English was not as difficult as she thought and it opened up opportunities for study abroad. 

Phavanhna said the desire to study abroad came right after her first exposure to other countries through the Japanese Government’s South East Asia program that she joined after high school. “There are many interesting things outside Laos to explore. After the trip I was really serious about studying abroad and I sought advice from my sister who at that time had already obtained an ADS”.

Preparation for ADS competition and success

While Phavanhna was undertaking evening English classes at Vientiane College, she excelled in working part-time in the library. Phavanhna took as many opportunities as possible to learn about Australia, its geography, its people and its cultural diversity by talking to VC teachers, reading books, and chatting with VC students. Phavanhna was successful in applying for ADS and went to study in NSW in 2000. “I imagined there would be lots of fun living in another country and in a different environment. I thought the people must be really serious about education. I actually found more of the ‘fun’ part, especially when I joined different activities of the University’s Student Club”.

Highlight event in Australia 

There was one time Phavanhna and another ten classmates, some Malaysians, Chinese, and Australians, took a week-end trip to the mountains. It was the first time she tried adventuring through mountain caves. It took a whole day, and there was a time when Phavanhna and a couple of the team members became lost in a deep cave. They were so excited, also a bit scared, and struggled to get out of the cave. She recalled the moment with excitement, “It was completely dark, we heard the voices of other friends outside the cave calling our names loudly, but we did not know which direction to take to get there. We held tight together, moving on slowly….finally we saw the lights at the far end; they spotted us and we were back to the team safely”.

Hard times and key lessons and skills gained from studying in Australia

‘Engineering in Information Technology’ was not a common field of study for female students, according to Phavanhna.  “Out of a hundred students, less than 10 were females. We (females) usually stayed quietly in the corner of the lecture room. Being a female student, it was kind of difficult to work in a team of male students.” However, she accepted that the teamwork experience and the hard work of IT laboratory assignments were in fact the greatest assets she gained from studying in Australia and she still utilises in her current job: “I developed the right attitudes and skills in working with a mixture of people; we respected each others’ differences and expertise. I always try my best, accept the results, try hard to fix the problems and move ahead, and continue to learn new things”.

Influential and helpful people

According to Phavanhna, she felt thankful to many people who were supportive of her along the ADS path. To mention a few, she is grateful to the Director of Vientiane College, to a senior classmate, and to the boss of the company in which she took internship in Australia. “I could not forget Denley. He is a very encouraging person. I learned lots of things from him while studying and working part-time at VC.  Also, I always think of a senior friend in the engineering school; he was a mentor, giving advice constantly   over the years of my study at NSW. I also highly appreciate my excellent boss, I learned a lot from him about how to work with others, to develop effective teamwork… I was very fortunate meeting all these people”, Phavanhna stressed.

Return to Laos – reverse cultural shock and re-adaptation

Phavanhna visited home a couple of times during the long school holidays. When she returned back in 2005 she accepted it was difficult to re-adapt to the Lao way of doing things.  “I felt the family still treated me like a little girl, and the people I worked with were not as open-minded as those I met in Australia. I found the new workplace was not as comfortable as I expected”, Phavanhna recalled how she struggled with negative feelings when she re-adjusted herself after being away for 5 years.

Many of Phavanhna friends who live in Laos said she is changed, from a very shy girl to an out-spoken and social person. For Phavanhna, talking to friends, both overseas returnees and local friends and her sisters has helped her a lot in the process of adapting herself to Lao culture and working environment.

Re-entering the workplace, and contribution to Engineering Information Technology sector

Phavanhna worked with the National Science, Technology and Environment Agency (STEA) under the Department of Information and Technology after she returned in 2005. Two years later she obtained a Fulbright scholarship to study a Masters degree in the US (2007-2010).  She is now working under the Administrative Cooperation and Legal Division, Ministry of Post and Telecommunication in her capacity as Deputy Director. Phavanhna and her IT team contributes significantly to the IT sector of Laos. She shared vividly: “I worked with the E-Government team; and one of the most impressive and challenging tasks I involved in was the development of Phetsalath font - using digital divide to help everyone work easier. Many experts in IT came together, under a UNDP project, from private companies, from the E-Government team. In December 2008 there was an official launch of Phetsalath font usage. Now we work with Google and hope to work with Apple in the near future”. 

Opinions about ADS

The ADS recipients are well prepared prior to their actual experiences in Australia; and this should be continued, accordingly to Phavanhna. In Laos, at the moment, there are probably less than 10 Lao females who are experts in the IT field, while there are increasing needs for more specialised IT persons. She expects there will be more schools opening up in this field; and there are more males and females taking up the subject in the country and in further education through ADS opportunities.  

Phavnahna still keeps in touch with her senior classmate, and other University friends. “With the modern ICT of today it’s easy to catch up with them - they are doing fine”.  

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Buavanh’s Experience

Alumni: Mr. Buavanh Viravong (Bank)
Institution: Melbourne University
Scholarship: Australian Development Scholarship (ADS), and Australian Leadership Awards Recipient (2012-)
Period: 2001-2002 (ADS)
Qualification: Postgraduate Diploma in Economics, Master of Commerce (Economics), Doctorate degree (ALA) Public Policy
Current career: Director, Multilateral Trade Policy Division, Foreign
Trade Policy Department, Ministry of Industry and Commerce

Childhood of excellence and self-motivation

Buavanh Vilavong (Bank), the Director in charge of Laos’ World Trade Organisation Negotiation Team under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC), grew up in Kasi province with his grandparents, while his father (in the police force) and his mother (a pharmacist) worked in Vientiane.  Buavanh says of his childhood that “life in the countryside is different from that in the city” and he spoke of having good memories from his childhood in the country. 

Buavanh returned to Vientiane to continue his studies in Grade 8 until finishing secondary education. At Chanthabouly High School, Buavanh was good at science subjects, in particular maths, where he was awarded the first prize in the Vientiane Capital maths competition in his final year of high school, and also won the second place in a national-level competition. 

Bank says that his desire to excel in school was inspired by the memory of his late uncle, who was also a very quick learner. This, along with his interest in reading biographies of well-known people gave him a lot of self-motivation - as he progressed with his education, and the better he did in comparison to his peers, the more motivated he became to succeed.

Buavanh studied and worked at the same time during his time in Australia. “I would recommend that other students work, but of course they should adhere to the rules...to limits...so that it does not affect their study performance, because they will learn how the work place there is different from Laos, and they will get to know more about Australia and Australians at work”.

In 1999 he completed a Bachelors degree in International Economics from Thailand.  Even while doing his undergraduate studies, he was already planning to pursue his further education, and was motivated by valuable 'experience sharing' by alumni who encouraged him to plan for the future and be pro-active in achieving his goals.  So, as he neared the end of his degree in Chulalongkorn University, Buavanh began applying both for work and scholarships. He began working as a trade economist in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in 2000, and also won an ADS scholarship to do his Masters at the University of Melbourne during 2001-02.

He could have studied in other countries, but he decided to go to Australia as an English-speaking country – that was his initial intention. However, in Australia, he was further impressed with what he experienced. At first, he realised that there was a different approach to analysis and thinking involved in studying there.  He says “when I was in Australia I discovered many things ... I think that studying in western countries is more like western thinking ... it’s analytical ... you don’t have to work very hard at maths, but you have to be critical.”  He added that “this was an additional plus” to studying in Australia, something he had not expected before commencing his studies there.

Multi-cultural Australia

Speaking of his experience of living in Australia, Buavanh said: “Australia is very culturally blended ... a lot of Asians ... maybe I had even more Asian food than when I was at home. I made lots of friends from Indonesia and the region” and also “I got a good reputation from the university.”

During his time in Australia

Buavanh describes one of his biggest challenges: “Being on my own was pretty stressful for the first few months...you have to find your own accommodation, work out where to go on the train, manage your courses and so on, as compared to his earlier experience in Thailand” but said “it was worth it” and added how he felt much more able to handle different situations as a result.

Buavanh both studied and worked. He states that he found Australians to be friendly, although it took him a little while to get used to some of the small cultural differences, like his direct superiors at Oxiana who kept thanking him after his job completion.  He added: “I would recommend to other students that they work, but of course they should adhere to the rules ... to the limits ... so that it does not affect their study performance because they will learn how the work place there is different from Laos, and they will get to know more about Australia and Australians at work. I would not recommend it in the beginning though” he added, “leave at least six months to adjust first, so that you can make sure you can handle everything.” On this subject he also said that “working should be extra - your primary mandate is to finish your studies.”

Describing his experiences with Australian people, Buavanh said they were “frank, easy-going people ... sincere, friendly in most cases”.  As he had made some Australian friends before going to Australia, he was not shocked by the culture and knew some of the differences he might encounter but conceded that those who had not been exposed to Australians before might find the culture more challenging to understand.

During most university holidays Buavanh travelled around Australia and really enjoyed the experience.  This travelling and going to new places with a couple of friends from the Lao community was one of the highlights of his time in Australia.  He added: “it was enchanting to your mind to see how such a young country as Australia had developed so far... My assessment is that human capital is the key to this”.

One very important thing that Buavanh learned from travelling and living in Australia, without the kind of community or family support one might expect to find in Laos or Thailand, was the necessity to be “self-reliant”.  “Being on my own was pretty stressful for the first few months...you have to find your own accommodation, work out where to go on the train, manage your courses and so on, as compared to my earlier experience in Thailand”.  Adjusting to living abroad and the cultural differences were some of the challenges he faced.  “Getting used to being on my own was one of the biggest challenges - but it was worth it.”

Australia and Laos – different learning styles

Buavanh then spoke about the educational differences between Laos and Australia.  He found that there is a significant difference between learning styles in the two countries and mentioned the adjustment he had to make and overcome it: “the focus on analytical thinking was very difficult. In Laos or Asia in general, when you write a report you say what the teacher taught you, but in Australia you do the same thing, but then you have to elaborate and say it in your own words. In the beginning it was very difficult, but then I made friends with locals and those also on ADS from Indonesia, and bit-by-bit we learned and tag-teamed on certain group work.”  Buavanh has kept in touch with many of those friends and with other contacts like his supervisors.

One thing that initially disappointed Buavanh about the educational experience in Australia was that it seemed that the topics covered were not particularly applicable to Laos, but he went on to say: “you cannot cater to all participants from different countries ... now I understand that I had to extract the relevant parts of the curriculum, by reading on my own and doing my own assignments, and using that knowledge to see where we in Laos were going and how we could adjust the theory to the reality of the country.”

The ADS Program and life after returning to Laos

Interviewed about the ADS program in general, Buavanh said “I would recommend the ADS scholarship in terms of a ‘way of thinking’ and would say this should be the first choice for anyone who wants to do a degree.  However you will get more out of it than just your degree ... you will also get social and intellectual aspects of life.”

Buavanh commented that he would recommend the ADS scholarship to all kinds of people and feels that it is applicable across the board.  One area for improvement that he felt AusAID might consider was that “people from the provinces are disadvantaged in terms of English and competitive environment, and if there was a way for them to do training in advance, for them to be on an equal footing urban applicants, that might level the playing field.”  Buavanh also suggested that different categories be created for the English preparation courses, so that those with more advanced skills need not attend the year-long course before leaving for Australia.

Speaking about his return to Laos from Australia he said: “I feel that when I came back to Laos I was able to get along with more people because of the greater exposure I had to others in Australia and because of having to be self-reliant when I was there.”

After returning to Laos Buavanh rejoined the WTO accession negotiation team and was later sent to Switzerland for an internship.  Upon his return he was promoted to the position of Director of the Foreign Trade Policy Department of the MOIC.

Contribution to Laos’ WTO accession

Laos has pursued membership of the World Trade Organisation since 1998. As a Director in the Foreign Trade Policy Department of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC) he was heavily involved in the process to prepare for WTO accession. This has included negotiations on trade and services and intellectual property rights; supervision of a number of projects supporting Laos’ accession to WTO such as those funded by AusAID, Canada, EU, UNDP, USAID,  and World Bank and WTO accession negotiations with different WTO member countries.

According to Buavanh the challenges of the core team working on WTO accession negotiations and related legal reforms were coordination with various agencies in the central and provincial level of Laos, and convincing them to consider policy changes. This was in addition to awareness raising for the private sector and general public about the accession of Laos to WTO.

However, after 14 years of hard work by the team, in September 2012 the negotiations for accession were completed, and a full WTO membership is expected in 2013 after the National Assembly has completed ratification.

Australian Leadership Award for Doctorate Degree in Public Policy

Doing research in the field specifically related to trade, public policy and WTO accession has been a large part of Buavanh’s work and of his great personal interest. Over the years working in Foreign Trade Policy Department, Buavanh has produced a number of significant research papers related to the field. The predominant papers addressed such topics as the textile and garment industry and the impacts of the phasing out of textiles and clothing quotas in Lao PDR; assessment of trade and industry policy environment in Lao PDR; assessment of distribution services sector in Laos; issues to be addressed in WTO accession negotiations; and the Rules of Origin in Services.

“ALA is one of the most prestigious scholarships offered to potential leaders in the region”, Buavanh  said when asked about his future study at PhD level. With this interest in mind he simply searched the websites and made direct enquiries to Vientiane College which manages the program. He received advice and suggestions for steps to follow through the ALA nomination and selection process.

Buavanh foresees the PhD degree in Public Policy taking about 3-4 years. He has been accepted into the Australian National University PhD program. His doctorate paper focus on International Investment Treaties. “It is critical for Laos as a small country with limited capable personnel to understand the implications and manage leverage in negotiating the treaties, in particular in bilateral framework with big countries”, Buavanh said this was the rationale behind his decision to select the topic of his PhD paper. He expects to return to the MOIC, where he is currently working, with expertise that will certainly contribute to the public policy field of his department and of the Ministry as a whole. 

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