Government sponsored Mongolian graduates from Japan

Perceptions of Learning Experience

Ariunaa Enkhtur, Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 3 (Article 7 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 16 December 2018.

Abstract: The data presented in this paper come from a research on Mongolian alumni of three types of government-sponsored scholarships for graduate degree education in Japan. While the larger project deals with alumni’s holistic experience in scholarship programs during and after their programs, this paper focuses on how alumni interpret their learning experience in Japan as they look back after long time. Transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 1978) made it possible to explore whether these sponsored students learn in fundamental ways that go beyond technical skills and degree acquisition but in life changing ways. In order to understand alumni’s experiences through their own voices, a phenomenological study was carried out with 20 alumni through semi-structured interviews. The study found that most alumni did not have an epochal transformation that fundamentally changed their frames of reference, or their core identity. Rather alumni developed contextual understanding and multiple perspectives of Japan and Mongolia through constant observation and comparisons. In addition, alumni across different programs viewed that challenges from their professors, research work process, and work experiences promoted more self-reflections rather than classroom participation, course works or assignments.


Keywords: Government scholarship, Japan-Mongolia, Perspective transformation, learning experience, international graduate students


Although government-sponsored international higher education scholarships date back to the colonial period, it was from the latter half of the 21st century when scholarships as ‘a vehicle for overseas development assistance’ underpinned widespread investment by governments (Dassin et al. 2018). The Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Australia have a long history of providing scholarships for foreign students to study in their countries as a form of development aid (Kent 2018). Similarly, human resource development and self-help philosophy have been an integral part of development strategies in Asia, particularly in Japan, Korea and China (Yamada 2016).

Japan is the first donor country in Asia to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), a forum of the largest government funders that discuss issues around poverty, development, and aid in developing countries. The Japanese Official Development Aid (ODA) maintained the philosophy of ‘hitozukuri’(development of human resources) as the foundation for nation-building (Yamada 2016). In 1954, Japan established its national scholarship scheme as a way to contribute to the human resource development of developing countries, particularly in neighbouring Asian countries, and to prepare pro-Japanese leaders (Sato 2005). Then, after 44 years, Japan began to offer the Grant Aid for Human Resources Development (JDS scholarship) for targeted developing countries mainly in East Asia with an aim to develop institutional capacity through human resources development in Japan. Largely funded by the ODA, these two international scholarship programmes that aim to develop the human resources of the recipient countries with Japanese know-how and expertise have been an important part of Japanese development aid.

On the other hand, governments of developing countries also send their domestic students abroad. Similar to many former Soviet countries, Mongolia established its own loan-scholarship programme in 1997 to fund domestic students’ research in developed countries (MECSS 2018). The main purpose has been to prepare professionals who would fill the skill gap in labour markets caused by the transition to a market economy. Mongolia and Japan established a cultural exchange dialogue in 1974 even prior to the fall of socialism in 1989 in Mongolia. In 2017, 2,184 Mongolian students were studying in Japan, as one of the popular study abroad destinations. The total tertiary-level outbound students from Mongolia was 9,635 in 2017 or 5.4% of total tertiary level enrolment in the home country according to the UN’s data (UIS 2017). The number of students in Japan is predicted to increase further following the JICA and Mongolian government’s joint project, Engineering Higher Education Development, to prepare 1000 engineering students in Japan by 2023 through full scholarships.

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) recommended in Target 4b of its Sustainable Development Goals ‘substantially [to] expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries… for enrolment in higher education’ (UN 2015). The rationale for this goal and many other scholarships is that ‘scholarships for individuals to pursue international education can lead to more equitable, sustainable, inclusive and prosperous communities’ (Dassin et al. 2018). Another assumption is that individuals would develop not only technical and professional skills but also critical, analytical thinking, leadership skills, build personal and professional networks, expand their perspectives to look at issues, or become better equipped to solve problems (Campbell 2016). However, despite growth in a number of available scholarship programmes, little is known about sponsored students’ experiences—whether their learning experience prepares them to make changes in their communities upon return.

Rich literature exists on learning outcomes of international education abroad such as intercultural competency (e.g. Deardorff 2006), global citizenship (e.g. Potts 2016), or cognitive development (e.g. Baxter Magolda and King 2004); however, most studies are conducted while students are still in the learning process or right after they complete their programmes. Few studies looked at how alumni make meaning of their learning a long time after completing their programmes, and fewer studies focused on sponsored students’ experience.

An early study on the long term effect of international education abroad by Uyeki (1993) on Japanese and American Fulbright scholarship alumni noted that Fulbrighters were personally affected—their opinions about Japan-US relations broadened, and their self-confidence increased, especially the Japanese women who studied in the US. Dant (2010) studied Humphrey Fellowship programme alumni from Ethiopia, Ghana and Madagascar (to US) regarding their leadership perceptions and practices and found that alumni perceived that their exposure and participation in grassroots movements, democratic forms of governance, and civil society in the US inspired them to take leadership roles in their home countries. Similarly, Marsh et al., (2016) noted that involvement in social and political works through volunteer works and advocacy organisations were important for the African alumni in the MasterCard Programme (studied in the US) for their understanding of social injustice. On the other hand, the ethnographic study by Baxter (2014) on Rwandan undergraduate students in the US under the Rwandan Presidential Scholarship Programme found that the expectations associated with their scholarship and the US education did not align with students’ lived experiences in the US. While these students were privileged to receive the scholarship, they felt a high burden to meet the expectations of their family, friends, and home country.

The survey study by Dong and Chapman (2008) regarding Chinese government scholarship students from 58 countries suggested that the frequency of interactions with faculty members, the cultural and intellectual engagement of the recipients, and the personal effort invested in the study experience were important factors associated with a high satisfaction rate. On the other hand, Makundi et al., (2017) found that for Tanzanian scholarship students in China, language was the biggest barrier followed by a lack of understanding from the donor country and the host institution regarding students’ home country context. Although the Chinese government scholarship programme aims to develop economic partnership and cooperation, it was difficult for Tanzanian students to pursue trading and other entrepreneurial activities due to the lack of supportive activities during or after their programme. The ADB-Japan scholarship programme evaluation report (2007) noted that the scholarship students from developing countries who studied in designated host institutions in Japan, Thailand, Singapore, China, Australia, US and others perceived that their study had a high relevance to their post-programme career trajectories. However, they noted ‘difficulty in establishing partnerships with their fellow students/alumni stemmed from language barriers, the rigours of their studies, and the occasional or lack of networking activities among students/alumni outside the academe (such as seminars and training, or get-together activities)’ (p. 17).

This paper explores government sponsored Mongolian alumni perspectives towards their learning experiences in Japan through the lenses of transformative learning (Mezirow 1991). Mezirow stated, ‘Personal transformation leads to alliances with others of like mind to work towards effecting necessary changes in relationships, organisations, and systems, each of which requires a different mode of praxis’ (1991, p. 252). Thus, for its potential to motivate alumni to spur changes in their home country upon return, this study explores alumni experience through a perspective-transformation lens. Through semi-structured interviews with 20 alumni from three scholarship programmes, this study asks participants to reflect on what they value from their experiences, and how they interpret their learning process as they look back after many years. The three scholarship programmes are 1) the Japanese government scholarship (referred to as MEXT scholarship), 2) the Grant Aid for Human Resources Development (JDS scholarship), 3) Mongolian government loan-scholarship programme. Despite their differences in programming (such as selection criteria) and conditionality (such as the requirement to work in state organisation after graduation), these programmes state similar goals—to prepare human resources that would contribute to the home country development and bilateral relations between two countries (see table 1).

Government sponsored Mongolian students to study in Japan

MEXT scholarship

In 1976, the first Mongolian student received a MEXT scholarship to study in Japan as a ‘Research Student’. In 2017, the total Mongolian grantees under seven types of MEXT scholarships reached 1411 (Japanese Embassy in Ulaanbaatar 2017). 36% of them were ‘research students’—a scholarship programme for graduate degree programmes while 19% were for undergraduate degree programmes. The rest of the scholarships were for vocational schools, language and culture, and teacher training scholarship programmes. This paper focuses only on ‘research student’ scholarship alumni who have graduated from Japanese graduate schools with Master’s and/or PhD degrees.

The ‘research student’ scholarship programme selects students through two routes—through embassies in home countries and host universities in Japan. According to the data from the Embassy of Japan in Ulaanbaatar (2017), 299 Mongolian students received this scholarship through nominations by the embassy. The embassy conducts the pre-selection in Mongolia based on their leadership potential, research proposals, and the likelihood to enter top Japanese universities including language knowledge (English or Japanese), transcripts, and professional experience in Mongolia (Education and cultural attaché at Japanese Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, personal communication, August 2017).

JDS scholarship

The Japanese Grant Aid for Human Resource Development Scholarship (The Project for Human Resource Development Scholarship) was first launched in 1999 in Uzbekistan and Laos with an aim to develop human resources who would play core roles in the formulation and implementation of social and economic development policies (JDS website 2018). In 2008, the project objective changed its target from individuals to state institution’s capacity building. Since then the project has focused on supporting young government officials, with potential to shape policy and development in their home country.

Target fields are developed in line with JICA’s target areas and the development plan of the home country (JDS representative in Mongolia, personal communication August 2017). Students participate in mandatory orientation programmes in Japan and have options to attend various networking events in Japan. The JDS scholarship has strict contracts with grantees requiring them to return to their institutions in the home country upon graduation. The programme writes, ‘Each fellow is expected to use knowledge, network, and experience gained in Japan for the betterment of your own country’ (JDS website). Since 2001, when the programme opened in Mongolia, 300 Mongolians studied in Japan under JDS scholarships (JICA website).

Mongolian government loan-scholarship—MGL Scholarship

Since 1997 when the government of Mongolia launched loan-scholarship programmes to prepare professionals in target fields of study in highly developed countries, 2076 Mongolian students received MGL scholarship (MECSS 2018). 1514 (73%) were for Master’s and 251 (12%) students were for doctoral degrees. The Ministry of Education lists eligible fields of study to be sponsored. While the programme rules and regulations were amended many times, it always targeted top ranking universities in world university rankings. As of 2017, 81 Mongolians studied under this scholarship in Japan for their Master’s or PhD degrees.

All scholarship students conclude trilateral contracts with the Ministry of Education and the ‘sending’ state organisation where students are expected to work after graduation. The contract demands a collateral either in grantees’ or their relatives’ names. If graduates fail to work efficiently in state organisations for five years, they have to pay back the scholarship amount; thus, calling the programme a ‘loan’. However, students may postpone their return to pursue further education or internship opportunities. Besides forming contracts, scholars do not receive any orientation, training, or other supports for successful completion of their programmes.

Table 1: Comparison of scholarship programme schemes (as of 2017)
Programme MEXT Research Student Scholarship JICE-JDS Human Resource Dev. Mongolian government scholarship
Main purpose Strengthen bilateral relations through human resources development (MEXT 2016) Strengthen organisational capacity through preparation of human resources (JDS) Development of skills and human resources in target fields (MECSS)
Funding source Predominantly ODA ODA (grant-in-aid) National budget
Programme level Masters, Doctoral Masters Master’s and Doctoral
Scholarship amount Full Full Fixed amount ($16,000 per year)
Prior work experience 2 years 2 years in state organisations 2 years
Field of study Any fields available at host institution Target fields of study Target fields of study
Post-graduation requirement No requirement Binding agreement / Mandatory return; 2-year work requirement/ A binding agreement with collateral / 5-year work requirement/
Number of grantees 299 300 81
Local administration The Japanese embassy in Mongolia JDS representative office in Ulaanbaatar Ministry of Education, Mongolia

Conceptual Framework

The rationales underpinning international scholarship programmes that aim to develop human resources with high motivations and skills to make contributions in the home country and make changes call for an emancipatory learning experience. Thus, this paper draws on adult development and learning theory, transformative learning theory, conceptualised by Mezirow (1991) to understand how government-sponsored Mongolian grantees make meaning of their experience in Japan. The term, transformative learning theory, was first coined by Mezirow (1978) who was interested in the process by which adults develop perspective transformation. He defined perspective transformation as,

The process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrative perspective; and finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings (Mezirow 1991, p. 167).

Mezirow (1978) proposed ten steps to reach this perspective transformation. These include facing a disorienting dilemma or challenges; reflection on existing assumptions and values; critical dialogues with others understanding that this process is shared; trying and testing different roles, and taking action or making decisions based on new inclusive perspectives. Charaniya (2012) argued that in a spiritual and cultural context, a transformative learning journey follows a spiral process in a three-part sequence: 1) strong sense of identity confronted by anomalies and challenges; 2) this identity expands through intellectual, relational, and reflective experiences; 3) develops a clearer or more pronounced understanding of self and one’s role in the world (p. 231).

Mezirow (2009) noted that change in a learner’s social context, the feeling of ‘otherness’, challenges in the new context, or other disorienting dilemmas can trigger critical reflection on learners’ pre-existing assumptions. Mezirow (2009) stated that there are two ways for perspective transformation to occur. One way is a gradual transformation through accumulation or constellation of beliefs, concepts, judgments, and feelings that shape how we make an interpretation. Or it can be an epochal transformation, dramatic changes that challenge an individual’s core identity, worldview, or very sense of who they are (Mezirow 2009).

Existing studies on international students’ challenges in foreign countries reported growth and transformation especially when there are support and intentional activities to facilitate self-reflection. Trilokekar and Kukar (2011) reported from their study on American pre-service teacher candidates who participated in international exchanges that ‘being an outsider in their host society and being away from home enabled more risk-taking behaviour, an opportunity to experience a new or different identity’ (p.1146). Kumi-Yeboah and James (2014) found from their study on African international students studying in the US that classroom activities (classroom discussion, mentoring, personal self-reflection, class projects, term papers/essays, and assigned readings), faculty support, and learning a new language were important tools for transformative learning. In this study, the international students from Africa noted that student-centred approaches in the US compared to lecture based approaches in their home countries, team-based class projects, the importance placed on participation in discussion, and the freedom given to offer personal opinions helped them expand their perspectives (Kumi-Yeboah and James 2014).

Sims & Nishida (2018) found that short-term study abroad experiences in Japan had an impact to the pre-service early education teacher students’ from Australia to challenge their existing perception of quality early education provisions such as risks and safety. The students were asked to reflect on their observations at various early education programmes in Japan through a photo-elicitation method. Although at first the students were startled to observe a ‘lack of protection’ such as straps or soft falls under high chairs, they later questioned the Australian norms to be too protective that can hinder development.

In addition, unintentional or unexpected challenges could also be beneficial. Liu-Farrar’s (2007) study on Chinese educationally channeled migrants in Japan reported that the ‘extreme hardship’ especially in the early student years—‘the physical hardship on the jobs, the humiliation of being low status part-time workers, the knowledge about Japanese work ethics and the frustration with many social conflicts and cultural clashes’, helped the Chinese migrants develop important cultural assets and build social relationships despite the bitter memories (p.189). While many studies note challenges that international students face in Japan (e.g. Lee 2017), few discuss intentional engagement and support to facilitate growth.

On the other hand, learning is not always transformational. Students might not develop personal transformation during their international experience abroad even with intentional programming. Foronda and Belknap (2012) noted egocentrism/emotional disconnect, perceived powerlessness/being overwhelmed, and a vacation mindset as the main factors that hinder transformative learning. Similarly, Charaniya (2012) noted lack of challenging experiences, strong individual/national identity, and perceived powerlessness as obstacles. On the other hand, the students’ cognitive development stage plays an important factor to be able critically to reflect on their experiences (Merriam 2004).


This paper reports on the phenomenological study, the first phase of exploratory sequential mixed methods research.This phenomenological approach, inspired by Schutz’s (1970) theory of social phenomenology, helps to explore the subjective experiences of alumni and their reflection on their learning process, allowing them to make meaning of their experiences. Through a purposive snowball sampling method, alumni from three scholarship programmes were invited to participate in semi-structured interviews. After inviting alumni through JUGAMO, the Japanese alumni association in Mongolia, the YAMOH, Mongolian students group in Japan, as well as other social media pages, 20 alumni were selected to participate in the interview (see table 2 for demographic information). Participants who met the following criteria were invited to interviews: 1. Successfully completed their master’s or doctoral degree in Japan under one of the scholarship programmes; 2. Received the scholarship prior to their departure to Japan; 3. Graduated at least 2 years ago in order to allow time for alumni to recognise and become able to articulate the meanings of their experiences. Glisczinski (2007) noted that ‘recognising and being able to articulate the experience of perspective transformation may require more time’ (p. 326).

Interviews were participant-centred while the main interview questions provided general guidelines. The interviewer aimed not to inject her experiences in the interview content. Most interviews were held in Mongolia in August-September, 2016. Each interview lasted from 45 to 90 minutes. All interviews were conducted in the Mongolian language and mostly through face to face meetings.

Table 1: Demographic information of interview participants
Psed. name Sex Age Duration of study Area of study Years since graduation Degree
JDS Scholarship Az Female 40 2 years Social science 12 years Masters
Mandakh Female 36 2 years Social science 4 years Masters
Sara Female 39 2 years Public health 7 years Masters
Urgaa Male 36 2 years Natural science 2 years Masters
Zaya Female 37 2 years Public policy 2 years Masters
MEXT Scholarship Amar Male 44 4 years Health science 8 years PhD
Bayar Male 26 2 years Law 2 years Masters
Ganbat Male 38 5 years Law 6 years PhD
Maral Female 43 6 years Engineering 13 years PhD
Nyam Male 41 3 years Public Policy 6 years Masters
Solongo Female 39 4 years Health science 4 years PhD
Tseren Female 41 3 years Humanities 10 years Masters
Urnukh Female 38 4 years Health science 5 years PhD
MGL Scholarship Anar Female 36 10 years Social science 2 years PhD
Baatar Male 45 5 years Health science 4 years PhD
Dulam Female 32 4 years Health science 2 years PhD
Nergui Female 33 6 years Health science 3 years PhD
Tsetseg Female 38 6 years Natural science 5 years PhD
Tuul Female 33 4 years Natural science 2 years PhD
Javha Female 36 4 years Natural science 2 years PhD

The data analysis aimed to understand and recognise meaningful themes of the alumni’s experiences in their own voices. For this purpose, all transcripts were coded using open and axial coding methods. Through open coding, the researcher allowed codes to emerge without being restrained by existing theories or the researcher’s preconceived notions. In other words, in this initial process, concepts and ideas in the data were coded trying not to impose the researcher’s perceptions. Then axial coding was used to explore the relationship between codes across the data sets. During this process, previous literature, the research questions, and the conceptual framework played an important role to analyse the data both inductively and deductively. The nVivo11 software was used to see the density of each code and category across data sets while making it easier to go back and forth between coded parts and the transcripts, and develop demographic cases and thematic sets.


Brief profile of interview participants: Who are they?

The alumni who participated in this study had extensive education and professional history in Mongolia prior to their study in Japan. Although a few of them originally came from rural areas, all of them were working in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, at the time of scholarship programme selection. They were working in national research centres, government implementing agencies, ministries, or national universities prior to their study in Japan. Also, most of them had visited other foreign countries for conferences, professional or language training programmes, and sometimes, even full degree programmes. Those who completed their first degrees in Mongolia had graduated from the top national universities—none of them graduated from a low-quality private university. Although in the Mongolian context they were a professional middle class, they said that it was impossible for them to study for a degree in a developed country without the scholarship support.

However, for many studying in a developed country was considered as an expectation or even a norm, especially if they wanted to advance their career and status. Their professional peers, supervisors, or family members had studied abroad, or their work required new knowledge, know-how, and networks to acquire from highly developed countries. While those who had high Japanese language skills or personal and professional networks with Japan had already decided to study in Japan before applying for scholarship programmes, many others chose Japan because they received the scholarship. Among the interview participants, 12 of them studied in an English-language programme while eight studied in Japanese.

While their individual situations differed, most participants had a high expectation to learn from Japan for personal and professional development. As they reflected on their motivations to study in Japan, they remembered that they had certain goals and purposes—they knew why they wanted to study in Japan, and what they wanted to gain from their experience. These motivations to learn from Japan and expand their career prospects shaped their learning experience in Japan.

Impact to family

For many alumni, studying in Japan had a certain impact on their family, especially their children. While studying in a foreign country with small children can be challenging, many alumni viewed that it was rather the best time to study abroad when their children were still small because the children did not have to go through school adjustments and adapted fast to the new environment. They liked that the children could benefit from the Japanese health system while avoiding air pollution in Ulaanbaatar in winter. Maral, one of the early graduates of the MEXT scholarship in the 1990s viewed that studying abroad with a small child was a learning opportunity for her that developed her both psychologically and intellectually. She said that she received the ‘bachelor’s degree in life’ in addition to her Ph.D. in engineering. She said,

I had left my son in Mongolia when he was still breastfeeding, just 2 months old. I had to endure lots of psychological stress being away from my son… I still remember the pain, I used to express my milk to ease the pain… at that time the visa process was strict and though it was a relatively quick process for me because I was a MEXT student,… it still took a year and a half to bring my family (Maral, MEXT alumna).

The stories of women with small children leaving home to take an opportunity to study abroad were shared by many alumni. Nancy, a JDS alumni, came to Japan when her daughter was around 4 months old to study for her master’s degree. She said,

Now my daughter is very resilient. She has no problem to go out for many hours, to walk for long distance. And I liked the health system [in Japan] very much. Until 3 years old [until they left Japan], she receivedall the health services for free, doctor’s check-up and medicine were all free. It was a huge benefit for her to spend the first three years without taking any antibiotics, you know, especially for Mongolia where antibiotic is regularly administered in big doses(Nancy, JDS alumna).

Many interviewees had young children when they studied in Japan. When asked whether their children had any influence on their motivation to study in Japan such as avoiding the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar or being attracted to the children’s health insurance system in Japan, all said “no” but considered their children’s age, schooling, and other family matters when making decisions to study abroad. After returning to Mongolia, some realised that studying in Japan could have negative effects on children. Ganbat talked about the difficulties school-aged children face when they accompany their parents to another country for 2-3 years. He said,

unless children spend many years in Japan, they can be lost between two societies, culture, teachers, classmates…. in Japan students learn for long hours in a slow pace whereas in Mongolia it’s fast-paced in short time. Due to these differences, children lag behind and it affects their self-esteem. They are surprised why other children are always better than them(Ganbat, MEXT alumnus).

Another alumnus, Baatar (MGL alumnus) said that his son became “too modest and dependent on others.” Thus, when they came back, the family sent their son to a Russian school, as a way to make him more “assertive.” He said,

My son went to a nursery school in Japan before he even started speaking. So, of course, he adapted to Japanese culture very quickly. But after coming back it’s been a problem to let go some of his habits, like being too dependent, always asking what to do like ‘can I wear this?’ or ‘can I eat this?’ and not making his own decisions. I think the Japanese system shapes kids to become too dependent on adults or the system… so one of the reasons sending my son to Russian school was because we didn’t want him to be too modest or dependent… being too modest isn’t practical in Mongolia. One has to make their own decisions (Baatar, MGL alumnus).

It has been 5 years since Baatar returned to Mongolia at the time of this interview. While the adults had already adjusted back to their normal routines, work and social environment in Mongolia, their children seemed to take much time to adjust to different cultures.

While alumni had different opinions regarding the actual influence of Japan on their family, the shared experience in a foreign country strengthened their family. Tsetseg viewed studying in Japan with family was beneficial for her family without the influence of parents and other extended family members. She said,

We were a newly married couple with a little child. So being together in a foreign country, starting together from zero, struggling and celebrating together, we understood each other very well. When you are young and soon after starting a family, of course, there are times when each of you wants to go your own way in making decisions, and there are moments of misunderstanding. But when you are in a foreign country, we have to be independent, we can’t rely on others, we have to make our decisions by ourselves, and lead our life and family by ourselves, we had to talk and communicate a lot and understand each other more. So my family became very strong(Tsetseg, MGL alumna).

Alumni viewed their experience as a learning and growing opportunity for their family to become independent (e.g. from parents) and become more unified. The impact on family and children was an important area that alumni either valued or criticised as they looked back. As all three scholarship programmes require professionals with work experience, most tend to have family or partners at the time of their scholarships.

Constant observation and reflection

Alumni recalled that they observed Japanese culture, the way people lived and acted and tried to adjust their behaviour in order to fit in, survive, and succeed in their endeavours. As interviewees reflected back on their learning experience in Japan, they talked about such observations of norms and values in the society that led them to make comparisons to their prior experiences in Mongolia and other contexts where they studied and worked. Such observations ranged from a surface-level observation to deeper levels of critical reflection on social norms and cultural values. Zaya (JDS alumna) said, “We pay attention to mundane activities that we do not normally pay attention to,” and she talked about the way she observed her neighbours sorting their garbage, or perceptions of mothers in the society. Through observations and comparisons, some alumni re-evaluated their understanding of traditional roles being a mother, raising children, being professional, or faculty members. While Zaya talked about social services’ role in raising children, Amar talked about his identity as a professional. He said,

When we are in Mongolia, we don’t think much about who I am. But when we went to a new environment, we made lots of comparisons such as comparing my skills with other doctors around my age or comparing my attitude and understanding of research with other international students’ attitude towards research (Amar, MEXT alumnus).

Comparison with others helped Amar reflect on his own attitude and skills and position himself with other international students or doctors in Japan. Charaniya (2012) noted three types of entryways to transformative learning. She called them diving in, being pushed in, and testing the waters (p. 234). Those who dive in actively seek out experiences in different ways, seeing them as an opportunity to learn and move on in their lives. Those who are pushed in are those who encounter a disorienting dilemma that causes them to question their assumptions or beliefs. Instead of running away from the dilemma, they reflect and move to a dialogue. Those who test the waters face a disorienting dilemma differently—they have strong foundations but also are open to other possibilities. Many scholarship alumni who did not face academic challenges or sociocultural dilemmas found themselves as testing the waters. They already had a strong individual identity before their arrival but they also had an interest to learn from their experiences in Japan.

Most interviewees did not talk about distorting events that completely shook up their perspectives. Rather, it was an observation, interaction in the society, and having a chance to reflect and make meaning of experiences that led some to perspective transformation. For example, for Urgaa it was not the disorienting event that made him reflect but it was having the time to do so. Being away from daily work and household responsibilities, he found himself to have much time to himself to think and reflect, to observe and learn from others. He said,

When we’re inside the same social environment with daily tasks and works, we don’t pay attention to our internal selves, having no time to stop and reflect. In Mongolia, I didn’t have time to think about various things. But in Japan, I was just conducting my research and it was like having meditation every day—being alone while studying can be good sometimes. It can be an enlightening experience(Urgaa, JDS alumnus).

During this alone time, he explored Mongolianhistory, reading historical documents, and getting connected with online social groups and discussion boards. It helped him ‘explore who ethnic Mongols are and their histories like those in China, Russia, or Afghanistan’. Javha also shared the moments when she reflected on her national identity.

I thought, ‘how am I different from them’? When I was in Mongolia, food was just an ordinary mundane part of life but then when I am asked about Mongolian food or asked about very small things that I didn’t notice before, I think of these things: what do we eat, why do we eat this, and how do we make this etc. So, I thought of what it means to be a Mongolian, think of how to describe Mongolian context and culture, how to explain from which side… if I say this, maybe they will understand it wrong… so like this, I started to think more of how I should represent Mongolia and talk about Mongolia (Javha, MGL alumna).

Observing Japanese culture and comparing with their own cultural backgrounds, alumni gave various examples from food and eating habits or spatial orientation to social interaction and work habits. Such comparisons helped them reflect on their Mongolian cultural roots such as the nomadic root or former socialist context, or their own personal assumptions about work and research. While they all adjusted to Japanese norms and contexts as many quoted, ‘you have to be Roman if you are in a Rome’, most did not unconsciously assimilate to the culture. For example, Urnukh decided that Japan is not very suitable for her for a further stay after observing the social expectations. She said,

I just concluded that my personality doesn’t fit well in the Japanese society. I am very open and flexible person. But Japanese people are not. They always self-censor themselves, their words… and if they say yes, they will keep their words… maybe I can call it as very disciplined… and they have so much group identities. For job hunting activities, students all dye their hair to black and everyone wears black suits. One day students had yellow, brown hair but then one day all became black. Why? Because they are going to job interviews… Of course, I understand that this is the expectation and the social context. And I respected their culture, trying to understand them, following their rules, customs… For example, in Mongolia or here [US], I am more assertive, and say that I know this and that but in Japan, I didn’t act like that, so I followed others and worked on my own tasks quietly (Urnukh, MEXT alumna).

Rather than internalising the Japanese culture, alumni strengthened their contextual understanding of Japan and Mongolia, accepting and appreciating the differences between the two countries’ contexts. On the other hand, Az (JDS alumna) one of the early graduates did not find her lived experience in Japan as a learning opportunity as she looked back. She said,

Honestly, I didn’t learn much there. I studied in English but the school was just beginning to implement the English language programmes and were of poor quality… I didn’t have much social experience either because I didn’t know the language… and I didn’t socialise much with the other JDS students from other countries… because I didn’t know what they were talking about… I just had a very lonely time there (Az, JDS alumna).

Although she clearly had a disorienting event being in a foreign country being isolated, she did not have any transformative experience. She perceived herself as powerless and had an emotional disconnection with her experience, the two barriers to transformative learning as Foronda and Belknap (2012) noted. In addition, there was no support or ‘mentoring community’ that Daloz (2000) argued is an important condition for transformative learning. Coupled with her dissatisfaction with the academic experience, the lack of support to explore Japanese society, or to conduct a reflection on her experiences, she had a lost opportunity to grow. Although most alumni did not have disorienting experiences, their observations of Japanese culture, norms, and values made them reflect on their perceptions of self-identity and habits.

Academic learning environment

Although rarely mentioned, the two areas that challenged alumni’s way of thinking were the academic learning environment and work experience. While academic programmes and learning environments differed, challenges from supervisors and the nature of research work processes were perceived to be common factors in an academic learning environment that influenced alumni to expand their perspectives, and gain professional competencies. Mandakh talked about enhancing her time management skills by observing her supervisor’s planning.

My professor’s calendar for the whole academic year used to be already filled in advance… So it was very difficult to meet him whenever I wanted. I needed to plan my work in advance and make schedule in advance… Although it was very frustrating at times, I found it an amazing quality to make plans so thoroughly. It shows how well that person plans and manages her works… If you plan something in advance, there will be less emotional and financial pressure for that person, and less risks… Following this style or way of thinking, I try to plan my work in advance(Mandakh, JDS alumna).

The rigorous planning of his professor pushed Mandakh to reflect on her own planning skills. Although it was frustrating for her in the beginning, she now views it as a learning experience from her professor that questioned her planning skills and her view of planning, in general. Sara, a JDS alumna, talked about experiences that pushed her to learn to work independently and to express herself better. She said,

My professor used to come to campus from another university every 3 months or so. And he used to give me homework, like books, articles to read and so on, or to develop my study, and he would come back to check after a few months… we would make presentations. The first time he came to check, I hadn’t prepared well… and had a very embarrassing experience… I argued with my professor and cried… (laugh)… I was a very important person working in the state agency etc but then I felt like I was falling flat on my face… I learned that I didn’t know how to express myself clearly… argue logically. It wasn’t that I hadn’t read the materials (Sara, JDS alumna).

She thought about this experience and learned that she lacked skills to work independently and make a convincing argument. Building better communication with her professor and understanding his expectations, she developed better working styles. Now as a country representative of an international organisation, she leads her work and supervises other employees. She says, “My skill to work independently is really paying off.” Another MGL alumna, Anar, talked about a challenge from her professor,

My professor said that a person needs to study in the language of the country… if you go to England, you speak in English… and if you study in France, you speak in French and learn the culture of the country through the language… my professor had studied in French… And he told me that he would speak only in Japanese from then on… this was very challenging and prompted me to learn and study Japanese very hard (Anar, MGL alumna).

This demand to learn another language in order to pursue her studies was one of the disorienting events for Anar. Prior to Japan, she had studied English in an English speaking country for two years. However, her expectation to study in Japan in English completely failed after she arrived in Japan as a research student. The professor expected her to learn Japanese while she was a research student. Nergui (MGL alumna) also talked about challenges she faced after coming to study in Japan,

The professors treat you as if you don’t know much… for coming from Mongolia, they have an expectation that you don’t know much… and if you prove yourself to be hardworking and intellectual, they start to trust you as equal to their Japanese students. At least, I felt so, especially in the beginning (Nergui, MGL alumna).

Being one of the best students in Mongolia, always feeling accepted, these two alumni had never experienced such challenges before. However, both were glad for such a push as they looked back because ‘it really sharpened me’ as Nergui said. The motivation to learn and excel in their research that drove them to pursue their Master’s and then PhD degree balanced the challenges from their supervisor and peers. If the challenge was more than the motivation or the support, they could have failed their studies.

In addition to professors, alumni talked about the academic environment and research work process. Bayar talked about developing professional skills such as meticulous work, discipline, and an attitude to take his work more seriously,

I think by studying in Japan and by learning the language, I developed skills to see things from different angles—let’s say there is an issue, but instead of just looking at the issue from one angle, I learned that I need to find other options and solutions. Perhaps, by learning languages and through conducting researches, we develop these skills—ability to search for answers to problems. This tendency to look at things from different angles has been helpful for my work and life (Bayar, MEXT alumnus).

Tsetseg also talked about developing competencies to direct her own work independently.

The most important thing I learned was self-learning methods, techniques. In Mongolia, still today, the conventional pedagogy is dominant where students are taught from an authoritarian perspective. Students are used to being told what to do next. And the most common mistake that Mongolian students make in Japan is that they don’t take initiatives and don’t work/study on their own unless someone tells them what to do. As someone who’s been working as a lecturer before going to Japan, I was better at studying independently but still, there were moments when I felt that it wasn’t enough. So by studying in Japan for my master’s and PhD degree, I think I developed that skill to direct my own research and studies, set my own goals, come up with my own plan and do the work independently (Tsetseg, MGL alumna).

Many alumni talked about improving their research competencies whether it’s technical skills to measure or organisational skills to plan and direct their work independently, or moralities and professional ethics as a result of their own research work. However, very few alumni talked about critical thinking, discussions, reflective writing works, or assignments that challenged their assumptions. The only couple of alumni that mentioned such academic atmosphere were Nyam and Mandakh, both currently work in educational institutions. Nyam talked about the academic environment with a space to have discussion or arguments that helped him develop a more pragmatic way of looking at things.

It was normal to argue with the professor,senpai… it was a very open and free academic environment. This experience in such an environment and university culture really changed my beliefs and values. I learned how to view things from different perspectives, from other people’s point views, and started to leave the dogmatic way of perception that was dominant during the socialist times and moved towards the pragmatic way of perception (Nyam, MEXT alumnus).

Nyam said Japan was the ‘west in Asia’, the most westernised academic learning environment at that time. Mandakh (JDS alumna) talked about developing critical thinking skill as her professor’s influence,

My professor used to tell us to be critical in things, always ask ‘why’ every time. I think this is just my professor’s value. He always told us to ask questions from ourselves, don’t ever be satisfied with your result, not to leave the work with assumptions that the result is complete just because we know this area more, and told us to be critical and develop our critical thinking whenever we read something (Mandakh, JDS alumna).

On the other hand, Zaya compared her experience in Japan with her previous learning experience in the US. She said,

I could pass and graduate with two small kids without much struggle… but in the US, students have much more pressure. And they have more homework, reports to write, need to actively participate in discussions, debates etc. This participation is very important, right. But in Japan, it wasn’t like that. I think they are more traditional. Students learn on their own… there are discussions and seminar presentations… but students are not very active. Also, the programme was in English. So there weren’t many Japanese students. Most students were foreign students. And the classroom size was very small, up to 14, 15. Sometimes we had even 4, 5 students in one class. So I think with such small-sized classes, the workload was less (Zaya, JDS alumna).

Alumni, in general, did not talk about critical thinking or discussion activities as part of their academic learning. Rather, they referred to research works and supervisors’ challenges and guidance that helped them develop competencies and expand their perspectives. Nergui’s comment summarises this shared perception among interviewees.

I highly value the habit that I developed in Japan which is to complete works meticulously, to do things from the heart, and on time… Also, the habit to think and consider all possible, good and bad, outcomes. I can’t do things with just an abstract idea before considering its various aspects, possible outcomes etc (Nergui, MGL alumna).

Work experience

Although all alumni in this study were government scholarship recipients, their scholarship amount was different depending on their programmes. The Japanese government scholarship students received full tuition plus a living stipend while the Mongolian government scholarship was fixed regardless of students’ programmes or host country. Therefore, MGL students had to find an additional scholarship, apply for a tuition waiver, or work part-time to support themselves. Depending on the tuition fee, the living expenses, and whether they had dependents, MGL alumni had varying financial challenges. Baatar, the MGL alumnus said,

I had to juggle many works, study, and family at the same time. I had to work both night and day. I would get up at 6:00 AM, leave home at 6:30 AM and arrive at school at 7 AM, and by 5:00 PM I have to escape the lab because they want me to stay until 10:00 PM but I have to go to work. I have to work to feed my family and pay the school fees. I used to wash dishes, stack them, and besides that, I would work in two, three other places. At weekends, I used to work in other places…. (Baatar, MGL alumnus).

While other MGL alumni also talked about work experience, most interviewees did not have as challenging a financial burden as Baatar’s. For many, although challenging, the work experience provided another learning opportunity and a way to penetrate deeper into the society. Dulam, an MGL alumna who worked as an assistant in a nursery school, said,

The moments I observed Japanese parents and their attitude with their children were when I was working as an assistant teacher in a local nursery school. Because I don’t have my own family, I wouldn’t observe or pay attention to these things elsewhere for example, at the university (Dulam, MGL alumna).

Another MGL alumnus, Anar, had a rich learning experience while working in a wide range of places, from dishwashing job to Teaching Assistant at her university. This experience provided her rich contextual understanding of Japanese society.

I observed the Japanese work style. A new person is smoothly and easily absorbed into a ‘running wheel… of work’, like a spinning wheel…they put the person on the wheel very smoothly… and it is almost impossible to get out of this cycle during your work. You can’t easily say “I want to get out of this cycle” or I want to do this in my way. In Mongolia, we don’t have such a running wheel—it’s just a big flat platform or space… and people adapt to each other but there is more chaos.

In Japan, the wheel goes forward and your work also goes forward if you are inside that wheel. If you go outside the wheel, it’s not going to work out. Your work wouldn’t be successful and your colleagues wouldn’t respect you. You won’t learn a thing if you are not inside the wheel. It’s true even for a cleaning job…when I didn’t know the language, I used to do cleaning works. I used to wash cups in the kitchen. Anyone can wash cups, right. I have my own way of washing cups, right. But they require you to wash them in one particular way and place them in one place only (Anar, MGL alumnus).

Few other JDS and MEXT alumni talked about short internship works that helped them build personal connections and develop a better understanding of work culture in Japan. However, they did not have much financial pressure to both succeed in their academic endeavours and feed their families. Rather, the work experience provided them another angle to make comparisons. For example, Tseren said,

What is an advantage in Japan can be viewed as a disadvantage in Mongolia. Mongolia has a small population. In Japan, if you are excellent in one area, you can do well. But you can’t find a job [in Mongolia] if you say I can just write computer programmes. You have to have some leadership skills, be able to communicate with others, and in general know the whole system and policy where you are working. We are not very specialised, on one hand, but on the other hand, we don’t need to have each person working on one small part (Tseren, MEXT alumna).

While scholarship programmes with strict binding contracts ask alumni to return to home country upon programme completion, allowing them to apply their learning through internships or providing opportunities to experience Japanese work style can be a useful opportunity for students to not only develop technical skills but also for the perspective transformation.


Merriam (2004) wrote that adults who are already in higher cognitive development stage have the capacity to critically reflect on their experiences, participate in reflective discourses. If they are in lower stages, they don’t have tools or capacity to use to employ the critical reflections. Mezirow (1991) also noted, ‘the transformations likely to produce developmentally advanced meaning perspectives usually appear to occur after the age of thirty’ (Mezirow 1991, p.193). In this sense, sponsoring graduate students to take part in international higher education has a potential for individual transformation. However, as many scholars consistently emphasise, such learning is not automatic.

Mezirow (1978, 2009) pointed to the importance of challenges that shake adults’ existing frames of mind. However, besides the few alumni who had demanding professors or research process, or those who worked while studying, alumni did not face many challenges. This was different from previous studies that focused on a Western, particularly North American, context. Previous studies (e.g., see Kumi-Yeboah and James 2014) emphasised classroom learning including critical reflections, discussions, or group projects. However, in this study, even those who completed the Master’s programme emphasised supervisors and research works rather than classroom assignments. This relates to the different learning environment in Japan and the US but also epistemological orientations to knowledge and learning.

Rather than disorienting experiences, observations and comparisons promoted alumni to develop more contextual understandings and multiple perspectives. As adults with prior experience of university education and extensive work experience in Mongolia, many often critically viewed Japanese cultural norms and academic programmes. They did not unconsciously adapt to their environment but often reflected on their experiences. However, such observations and reflections depended on individuals’ attitude towards the new environment rather than the academic programmes or the scholarship programming. Therefore, as Az’s case shows, she did not develop such contextual understanding, or multiple perspectives. Some reasons could be her limited exposure to academic and social interaction, language barrier, lack of contact with her supervisor, research work challenges, and support to engage students.

Depending on the scholarship programmes’ goals, Dassin (2018) emphasised four areas of on-award support for scholarship students during their study in the host country: 1) Individual professional development opportunities particularly when students’ host universities lack career services or internship opportunities; 2) In-person meeting and electronic networking platforms; 3) Expose students to diversity, civic engagement, and service learning; and 4) Transitional support for post-study activities. Although the three scholarship programmes aim to develop professionals who would contribute to their institutions, community, or home country development and the relationship between the two countries, the programmes do not provide any support that Dassin mentioned. While the JDS scholarship has a social media group on Facebook that is run by the students and alumni themselves, neither MEXT nor MGL students have any networking platforms to develop and maintain connections or exchange ideas or talk about their experiences. In addition, none of the programmes expose the grantees to any service learning or social activities. While some host universities offer variety of cultural activities, many universities had limited opportunities due to the small number of international students. Unless students actively explored such opportunities on their own, the scholarship programmes did little to enhance their involvement in such activities. Consequently, the quality of the alumni’s experience was up to the host university, particularly the supervisor’s interference, and their own personal attitude towards challenges.

Another important area is the impact of having family members during their studies. Most alumni were married and had children when they studied in Japan. Having children promoted alumni to learn more about Japanese society and interact more with other community members including school teachers. In general, alumni viewed that their experience had a positive impact on their family—strengthening the families, exposing the children to a different language, or a better health system. Mwale et al. (2018) emphasised that there is a lack of studies on international postgraduate students with families and their non-academic experience in host countries. In addition, the long term impact on family members of scholarship students is little known. Thus, this area needs further follow up or longitudinal studies. It is thus important to track not only the alumni but their children.


This paper aimed to study how Mongolian alumni of three scholarship programmes sponsored by the Japanese and Mongolian governments make meaning of their learning experience in Japan by investigating their narratives through a phenomenological study. While scholarship programmes aim to develop human resources who would take part in national development orbuild bridges between countries, little is known about students’ lived experiences abroad. Despite small programmatic differences, all three scholarship programmes in this study left the learning experiences of their grantees up to the host universities and the individual students.

With extensive educational and work experiences prior to their studies in Japan, these alumni were able to navigate their studies and finances efficiently. Instead of uncritically adjusting to the system, they reflected on the cultural and contextual differences. Alumni constantly observed how people lived, what were the social expectations, what people valued or believed. Many compared these differences with their prior work and living environments in Mongolia. In addition, specific elements in the academic environment, especially supervisors and research work pressure, challenged the alumni’s previously held perceptions and pushed them to develop professional and personal skills, discipline, or ethics. Although a few alumni had work experience in Japan, it was often cited as an important learning opportunity that exposed them to Japanese work styles and value systems.


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About the Author

Ariunaa Enkhtur is a PhD student at Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University. Prior to her doctoral studies, she received her M.Sc. in higher education administration from Syracuse University, USA, under a Fulbright scholarship. Her research interests are student mobility, international higher education, scholarship programmes, and student learning.

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