Politics

I Reneged on the Terms of My Study-Abroad Grants. What Do I Owe My Home Country?

I’m from a West African country, and I moved to the United States to attend graduate school. I am a recipient of two academic scholarships, sponsored by the local and federal governments of my birth country. The paperwork I signed before departing for the United States specifically stated that, on completing my studies, I would return to assume a government post commensurate with my academic accomplishments and professional experience. (Many countries offered scholarships with similar stipulations in the 1970s.) Rather, I stayed, became a naturalized citizen, raised a family, held several academic and administrative positions in the United States and retired in the thick of the pandemic.

I had long concluded that my research activities — e.g., publishing peer-reviewed research in books and journals, reviewing research proposals and doctoral theses, presenting conference papers and giving workshops — could serve as an acceptable proxy for returning to my birth country after graduation by contributing directly to its economy and well-being. Now I am increasingly concerned about such a justification, particularly in the absence of data that my academic products had any measurable impact on government policymaking. How do I make taxpayers in my home country whole, following a robust government investment in my master’s and doctoral education? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

You breached, as you suspect, a serious agreement. Even if it were the case that your academic work here benefited your country of origin as well as your direct service would have done, it wouldn’t have excused the wrong of not meeting the conditions you agreed to. Your mortgage company might well be served by your endorsing them on Instagram, but that wouldn’t entitle you to reduce your monthly payments.

You could try to argue that your country shouldn’t have made your scholarships conditional on your returning: You needed the money to further your education, and the only way of getting it was this unfair deal, your consent effectively secured under duress. But I don’t buy it. The U.S. Army offers college scholarships that require years of full-time service. I don’t believe that’s morally wrong.

One way to think about what you owe is to ask what the current value of the money would have been if it had been a loan, assuming a modest percentage of interest for intervening years. You could consider spending that much on projects in your country of origin over the next few years. But I doubt you could afford to do it.

So think, instead, about what you do have to offer. In this age of Zoom, would you be able to provide expertise as a consultant to worthwhile development projects in your home country? Is there a charitable venture there that you could help raise money for? Could you help create a partnership between a research institution in this country and that one? Could you serve as a mentor to students or young professionals there?

Many would see your story as part of a larger issue — the “brain drain” that results when skilled workers leave lower-income countries for higher-income ones. (Many health care workers from Ghana and Nigeria work in Britain while hospitals in their countries of origin struggle with inadequate staffing, and as The Times recently reported, Jamaica has been left with a teacher shortage as thousands have filled school staff shortages in the United States and elsewhere.) The issue is complicated, because it counterposes conflicting values: freedom of movement, on the one hand, and what people may owe the public that invested in their advanced training, on the other. The agreement you signed makes yours a more straightforward case. A decision you made at the start of your career is preying on your mind amid your retirement. I’d urge you to turn your gnawing guilt into something of genuine value. Otherwise it will remain — in the worst sense of the word — academic.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from a reader who was wondering whether to tell her mother, who opposes abortion, about her terminated pregnancies. She wrote: “My mother and I disagree on a lot, but we often put our disagreements aside to enjoy a healthier relationship, even if it’s on a surface level. She has been anti-abortion my entire life. … She is very aware of my pro-choice beliefs, but she does not know that I have had two abortions (neither of which I regret). I am in my 30s, and each passing year my desire to be a mother decreases exponentially. Recently, she has begun to complain about her lack of grandchildren. I have chosen not to tell her about my abortions, because this information might be grief-inducing for her. But as she continues to push her ideologies on me, I feel more and more compelled to share my life experiences and choices. What do I owe her?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “It might be helpful to separate out two distinct issues here. One is that you don’t plan to have children. You ought to let your mother know this and ask her to stop pressuring you on this front. … it’s important that you’re clear about why you’re tempted to tell her about your abortions and what you hope to achieve by doing so. … A bad reason to tell her, let’s agree, would be that you’re fed up with her sermonizing and want to hurt her. A good reason would be that keeping this from her has become a burden to you, perhaps an impediment to some more authentic relationship that you can envisage. Either way, you have no duty to tell her. I don’t know whether the disclosure would ultimately bring you closer or push you further away. I do know that the various relationships we have in our lives nourish us (and vex us!) in different ways. You may decide simply to let this go — and to love what you love about each other.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

I totally agree with the Ethicist, as usual. If I were the letter writer, I would keep my private choice private in this case, as I believe it would most likely damage the relationship and cause unnecessary pain to her mother. Sallyann

I think the letter writer has an ethical reason to expose her mom to reality, that the opportunity to have safe abortions is a critical element of women’s health. It is no longer culturally sustainable to allow anti-abortion rhetoric to flourish as an acceptable ideology. It puts women at risk. If anyone is given the opportunity, they should use any resources at hand to actively change the opposition. Luke

The letter writer’s mom will feel betrayed and be deeply shocked if she admits all. A fair solution might be to insist that abortion is a topic they will both avoid out of respect and love for each other. Diane

I have two adult daughters, unmarried, in their 40s. I have always felt that abortion is morally wrong, equivalent to murder, and when I learned I was pregnant as a student in the early 1970s, I got married and gave birth to their older brother. My daughters have had full modern independent lives. I know that it is very possible that one might have had an abortion. I also know that they would not choose to burden me and especially their very religious father with that knowledge as a kindness to us, even though they are secure in our acceptance and love. I am grateful even for the possibility of that gift and our adult relationships are enduring and strong. Linda

I like how the Ethicist sees all sides and hears all feelings of this issue. I’m a woman who knew early in life (age 13) I would not want to have a child. I made the same decision and chose abortion several times in my 20s. I continue to be grateful that the option was open to me at the time. No family member ever asked, nor did I tell, about my decision to remain childless. Being pressed to have a baby sounds like an invasion of privacy. The letter writer won’t benefit from revealing her abortions to her mom, as the mother doesn’t sound capable or desirous of controlling her need to talk about it. If the letter writer wants a deeper connection, she could risk telling her mom that talking about abortion makes her feel uncomfortable. Laurie

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