Connecting Education and Opportunity: My Observations Overseas

I grew up comfortably on the upper edge of the middle class. Privilege was the filter on the lens through which I viewed the world. For me, education was available, and opportunity abundant.

Still, I realized most people traveled a path narrower and more precarious than my own. In the early years of my marriage, I was fortunate to spend several years living and traveling overseas. During that period, I met children as young as seven or eight selling souvenirs to tourists at heritage sites because their families were too poor to send them to school. Poverty was their inheritance. Education was only a dream, if the concept existed for them at all. If education is the key to advancement, these children were in a perpetual state of retreat.

But what of those unable to advance not for lack of education, but of opportunity? If education is the road to success, what happens when you reach a dead end?

The bulk of my overseas adventure was spent in Singapore, the wealthy island nation located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Singapore is shiny, modern, famously efficient, and almost impossibly clean. I doubt you’ll never see a cleaner city of comparable size. Off the streets, behind closed doors, you will find the homes are every bit as clean and orderly. Often, this is due to the hard work of the women specifically employed to maintain that appearance.

Singapore is a wealthy nation in southeast Asia. Photo courtesy Danny Santos II

Foreign Domestic Workers (most commonly referred to as “foreign maids”) are ubiquitous in Singapore. Such is the country’s dependence on foreign maids that upon hearing I chose to handle my own housework people would look at me in wonder, as if I were speaking some strange dialect they couldn’t quite understand.

In Singapore, your maid not only cleans your house on a daily basis. She also washes your clothes and your car, doubles as a nanny for your children, prepares your food, lives in your home, and enjoys only one day off a week, typically Sunday. Maids refer to their employers as “sir” or “ma’am”, even when speaking to others.

The job could also be dangerous. Young maids have died in falls from high rise apartments after being instructed to clean the outsides of their employers’ windows. Fearful of losing their employment if they refused, they lost their balance and their lives instead.

Foreigners are often surprised to learn a large percentage of maids have college degrees. Despite their educational success, few opportunities are available to them in their home countries. As a result, these women turn to overseas domestic work. Ironically, many of the maids caring for their employers’ children are mothers themselves, having left their children in the care of relatives.

Foreign maids typically send money to support their families back home. Oftentimes, they save all they can, hoping to amass a sufficient amount to comfortably return home themselves. One acquaintance of mine had a maid who declined to utilize her “home leave” for several years, even though her employers would cover the cost of her ticket. She wanted instead to work through her vacation so she could earn, and save, as much as she could. During her employment, she sent a portion of every paycheck to her mother to deposit in a savings account. She had saved more than she could have earned back home.

Finally, her employer purchased a ticket and convinced her to take the trip. They drove her to the airport, laden with gifts for her family. When they picked her up two weeks later, she revealed that her mother had squandered all of her savings.

How would these women’s lives be different had the opportunity existed at home? They weren’t failing to exercise more attractive options. No such options existed. Armed with their hard-earned degrees, they faced a brick wall where opportunity should have stood.

Life in the United States affords us opportunity in abundance. However, many women face obstacles that prevent them from enjoying their share. While the desire is present, higher education and training remain out of reach for those unable to afford the cost while already struggling to support their families.

The Live Your Dream: Education and Training Awards for Women helps women serving as head of household continue their education to improve their employment prospects.

To learn how you can help give the gift of education, visit

Robyn Frank Smith is a retired attorney and mediator who now teaches Conflict Resolution at the university level. Though originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Robyn has lived in a variety of places (some more interesting than others), including Memphis, Washington, D.C., and the Republic of Singapore. Her hobbies include weightlifting, creating upcycled furniture and décor from found objects (she is currently working on a project with an Amish buggy door), and fighting about politics with strangers on Facebook. She also enjoys pretending she’s happy being a vegan, and traveling the world with her husband and teenaged daughter. She lives in Pennsylvania.

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