THU THUA, Vietnam — In 2011, a malnourished 14-year-old Vietnamese village girl named Phung arose in the wee hours each morning in a herculean struggle to get an education. After I wrote about her, readers responded with a torrent of $750,000 in donations to Room to Read, the aid organization helping her.
So I decided to drop in and see what had become of this inspiring girl.
The question seemed particularly relevant after the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls, for Phung’s tribulations underscore that the challenges of girls’ education are global. Here in rural Vietnam, girls aren’t kidnapped because they want to study and learn, but they face more banal challenges – above all, poverty and pressure to quit school at 15 and start working. Poverty holds far more girls hostage worldwide than any warlord.
Phung, whose full name is Dao Ngoc Phung, is from an impoverished and landless family, and, five years ago, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. After she died, leaving the family with large medical debts, the father moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where pay is higher, so that he could keep his children in school. He returned only on weekends.
So Phung on weekdays became, at 14, the head of the household. She did the chores and spanked her younger brother when he hung out with the naughty boys (she said she cried as she did so).
School was possible because Room to Read paid for school fees, books, a uniform, school bag and bicycle, while also providing a broad range of counseling and training.
Room to Read was founded in 2000 by John Wood, a former Microsoft marketing executive who has now built more libraries worldwide than Andrew Carnegie did. A donation of $40,000 to Room to Read sponsors a school, $5,000 a library, and $250 keeps a child in high school for a year. Room to Read has touched some 8 million children in 10 countries, including 3,000 girls sponsored by Times readers who were inspired by Phung.
On this trip, I found Phung, now 16, at her new high school, where she is ranked near the top of her 11th-grade class of 191. She sets her alarm for 3:30 each morning, reviews her homework and then commutes an hour each way to school. She washes her only school uniform – a white dress – in a bucket each evening and hopes it will dry overnight.
“Phung is very poor, but she is also very tough and is making an incredible effort to succeed,” said Le Thi Thanh Giang, a school administrator. “She will be successful.”
Indeed, Phung is planning to continue to university, to study economics. As it often does with its high school graduates, Room to Read hopes to find her a scholarship.
Not all the assistance succeeded. A donation of 100 rabbits was meant to give the family a sideline business, but a virus soon killed 93 of the rabbits. The family hurriedly sold the rest before they, too, became sick.
That’s a reminder that helping people is harder than it looks. But the bottom line is that a village girl of prodigious talent is now a star at a good school and potentially headed for college and a professional career - because readers were willing to invest in her. Without Room to Read, Phung says, she’d have had to drop out and work in a factory.
It puzzles me in my travels that the donors who invest most in education are fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims from Saudi Arabia. Often in Africa and Asia, I see madrassas that they have established to inculcate reactionary attitudes, because they understand that education is the best tool kit to change societies.
We don’t even compete.
The Nigerian kidnapping has outraged the world and left us feeling helpless. Yet there’s much we can do, including urging President Barack Obama to revive his 2008 campaign promise to start a global fund for education.
We can urge passage in Congress of the International Violence Against Women Act, stalled by Republican opposition. For that matter, we can also improve our own schools. If a single aid group like Room to Read can create opportunity for millions around the globe, think what we could do as a nation.
Phung sends her thanks to Times readers, and she could teach us something. I mentioned to her that American students might not be thrilled at having to wake up in the pre-dawn darkness each morning, and that they are often tardy to class. She looked slightly scandalized.
“Education is the priority for me, so getting up very early, going a long way - those are very minor inconveniences when I’m able to pursue an education,” she said.
Bravo, Phung! She understands better than we do one of the world’s most powerful truths, that education is the best investment - for a family or for a society.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof.