International student mobility (ISM) has been driven throughout history not only by academic purposes but by a complex interplay between cultural, political, and economic motivations (Guruz, 2011). Governmental financial support for ISM flourished after WWI through the creation of several institutions across the globe promoting the international educational interchange of people and ideas and the development of a peaceful world through increasing understanding between nations (Johnson & Colligan, 1965). These institutions have been the precursors of major funding bodies of mobility mainly driven by diplomatic aims of cooperation, mutual understanding, and the promotion of national cultures and interests (Guruz, 2011). On the other end of the scale, many developing countries have funded ISM programmes with the main objective of increasing their human-resource capacity, particularly in high ranked HEIs and in subjects that are underdeveloped or unavailable at home (Engberg et al., 2014). In Mexico, the rationale for the CONACYT international scholarship programme since 1970 has been the acquisition of skills and knowledge for human capital development. Through this federal programme, the Mexican government has funded ISM and particularly doctoral studies for capacity building and to develop research activities contributing to Mexican competitiveness and economic development (CONACYT, 2014; Grediaga, 2017; Luchilo, 2009). Therefore, investing in ISM is considered to have economic returns for Mexico, for instance, through the positive impact on students’ employability (Varghese, 2008). Nonetheless, research into CONACYT programmes has been limited to evaluations of the impact of their programmes in general, including the provision of national scholarships for masters and doctoral studies (Luchillo, 2008; Ortega et al., 2002). Employability, salaries, and academic production post studies have been the focus of those reports.

The main debates about ISM scholarship programmes have been concerned with the supply of scholarships for students from privileged socio-economic backgrounds and the use of public resources for what some might consider not a priority area (Andere, 2004; Johnstone, 2003). More broadly, several researchers have argued that there is a reproduction of inequalities through the limited participation of less well-off students in these mobility schemes or their relegation to lower quality programmes (Courtois, 2018; Lopez, 2017).

Against this background, the main purpose of this paper is to investigate how the CONACYT international scholarship has benefited former doctoral awardees from lower socio-economic backgrounds who studied in different European countries. It then makes some connections between these socio-economic backgrounds and previous opportunities, and the ways in which they informed the participants’ decisions to study abroad. It finally shows the outcomes of ISM supported by this governmental scholarship, such as the possibility of social mobility, social participation, and social change. This paper makes an important contribution to the exploration of the wider benefits of ISM scholarships. It additionally offers a broader understanding of the intersection of students’ backgrounds and previous educational opportunities driving ISM, the development of capabilities, the transformation of life trajectories, and their implications for social change.

Literature review

The mobility of international students has increased considerably in the past two decades. There were 5.6 million students in 2018 enrolled in international HEIs outside their countries of origin, twice as many than in 2005 and 22% of those were enrolled at doctoral level (OECD, 2020). According to the Institute for Statistics of UNESCO, there were 34,781 Mexican students abroad in 2020 and 37% were enrolled in European HEIs, mainly in the UK, Spain, France, and Germany, with almost the same proportion (41%) studying in the USA.

Together with mobility, the offer of international scholarships has also increased in number and type (Campbell & Neff, 2020). In this context, The CONACYT international scholarship in Mexico was developed in 1970 with the aim of acquisition of skills and knowledge for human capital development (CONACYT, 2017) contributing to the growth of ISM worldwide. These scholarships do not represent the main financial resource for ISM in the country; nonetheless, they have been considered a “visible milestone” of regulated mobility, of long duration and focused on graduate studies supported by the state (Grediaga, 2017). For instance, out of the 27,118 Mexican students involved in ISM in 2013, 19.1% (5,181) were funded by CONACYT (CONACYT, 2014). Moreover, between 1997 and 2008, there were over 5000 doctoral awardees funded by this scheme and 60% of those were enrolled in European institutions.

International students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds

In the European context, there is evidence suggesting that the increased likelihood of participation in ISM is associated with higher socio-economic class (Di Pietro, 2020; Waters, 2012; Waters & Brooks, 2010; Wiers‐Jenssen, 2011). These inequalities in access to ISM have been discussed in the research of some governmental programmes supporting outbound mobility (Andere, 2004; Johnstone, 2003). Moreover, research has found students from lower-class backgrounds restricted to less prestigious credit mobility schemes, thus reproducing social inequalities (Courtois, 2018). Nonetheless, there is also evidence of participation on ISM of students from less well-off backgrounds enabled by scholarships (Dassin et al., 2017; Durak, 2021).

Despite continuous support of ISM by the Mexican government and other institutions and organisations, educational mobility is still an under-researched subject in the country. In the case of the CONACYT scholarship programme, studies have only explored the number of students supported, participation in particular subject areas, occupational trajectories, and students’ perceptions about economic benefits accrued through ISM (Luchilo, 2009; Ortega et al., 2002).

Decisions to study abroad

Previous research in the ISM field has identified diverse factors “pushing” people to pursue ISM or “pulling” them to specific destinations (Altbach et al., 1985; Cummings, 1993). Building on this body of research, De Wit (2008) developed a push/pull mobility framework looking at educational, political, social, cultural, and economic factors. Amongst the frequently mentioned drivers for ISM are quality and prestige of HEIs and reputation of specific disciplinary groups (Brooks & Waters, 2009; Mazzarol & Soutar, 2002) and the possibility of acquiring “world-class” international degrees that could open employability opportunities (Holloway et al., 2012). Another push factor is the language of instruction, favouring English-speaking destinations where the best-ranked institutions are commonly located (Baláž & Williams, 2004; De Wit, 2008). Nonetheless, France, Spain, and Germany also receive a high proportion of international students. This has been associated with cultural and geographical proximity (OECD, 2004); research in particular fields and networks previously forged by teachers and mentors in these destinations (Beech, 2015); high-ranked HEIs (Bilecen, 2013); and available scholarships (Altbach et al., 1985). In the case of intra-European mobility, amongst the most frequent reasons to study abroad are the improvement of language skills, personal growth, and the experiential aspects associated with interacting with other people, cultures, and places (Van Mol & Timmerman, 2014). Enhancing world views and building cross-cultural understanding through ISM opportunities have also been mentioned (Knight & Madden, 2010) .

Finally, a relatively small body of research has explored drivers for ISM associated with specific family dynamics such as accompanying spouses. For instance, Sakamoto (2006) and Brooks (2015) have described how female spouses’ decisions were generally determined by their male partners’ decisions on studying abroad.

Limited studies have investigated the drivers that have pushed/pulled Mexicans to look for educational opportunities in Europe (Gérard & Maldonado, 2009). A comprehensive research project exploring education and work trajectories of mixed generations of Mexicans who had diverse ISM experiences has linked motivations with socio-economic possibilities and previous educational opportunities (Grediaga, 2017; Lopez, 2019). These researchers found that former teachers, tutors, and friends who had experiences abroad were strong motivators for mobility. Amongst the personal motivations, the prestige of the institutions, the status of holding an international degree, and the possibility of establishing networks abroad were frequent push factors. Moreover, students who chose Spain as a destination were often driven by cultural and language similarities. These studies, however, have not focused specifically on CONACYT doctoral scholarship awardees who have studied in Europe and have not explored the ways in which Mexico is benefiting from the investment in an ISM programme. In this context, exploring the distribution of mobility opportunities to European countries through the CONACYT programme becomes relevant.

Impact of ISM on social change

The impact of ISM has been researched mainly exploring the way it contributes to knowledge production and transfer; research productivity and collaboration (Jonkers & Cruz-Castro, 2013; Murakami, 2014); the development of human capital; and the economic benefits associated with increased employability (Holloway et al., 2012; Wiers‐Jenssen, 2011). Nonetheless, some researchers have adopted a broader perspective showing how ISM also promotes positive social change, for instance, through the engagement of returnees with their communities, leading changes in policy, university structures, health and education reforms (Marsh et al., 2016), and in teaching practices (Groves et al., 2018; Hamza, 2009). Other studies have found Chinese returnees maintaining intercultural values and understandings, applying them in their everyday practices and influencing in positive ways the wider Chinese society (Gill, 2010). Paige et al. (2009) have also shown the positive impact of ISM on graduates’ career paths, increasing their civil engagement, knowledge production, voluntary work, and social entrepreneurship. Finally, post-graduation decisions are strongly shaped by the international students’ transitional life stages, social relations (Geddie, 2013), and gender identities (Leung, 2017). These interactions between students that have been exposed to ISM and their non-mobile communities have re-shaped, in different ways, identities, social relations, and institutions (Rizvi, 2009). Indeed, ISM enables the application of the new acquired cultural perspectives and knowledge into personal and professional trajectories post-graduation (Collins et al., 2017).

Currently, there are several ISM scholarship programmes supported by developing countries or in transition whose outcomes have been mainly explored in terms of their success to develop an internationally competitive workforce and on their human capital benefits (Bukhari & Denman, 2013; Perna et al., 2015). As an alternative, a handful of studies have used the capability approach (CA) to explore students’ development of personal and professional capabilities and broadening employment opportunities through credit mobility programmes and their further association with social justice (Boni et al., 2015; Martínez-Usarralde et al., 2017). Equally, Pham (2019) has shown the transformative potential of ISM analysing aspirations, opportunities, and practices of Vietnamese overseas graduates after they returned to Vietnam. These studies show the applicability of CA to analyse the broader benefits accrued through ISM programmes. In this paper therefore, I offer a human development approach to evaluate the long-term outcomes of the CONACYT scholarship programme.

Theoretical approach

This research links the transformative potential of HE for individuals and society to the question of ISM scholarships. This study was carried out using a human development framework to evaluate the broader benefits of the CONACYT scholarship programme (López-Murillo, 2022). This framework considers, simultaneously, the extent to which the individual international experiences can be transformative, drawing on transformative learning theory concepts (Mezirow, 2000), and through the CA (Sen, 1999), explores the array of capabilities that students acquire during ISM and the extent to which they achieve valued functionings. Capabilities are potential functionings—what a person actually manages to achieve or do, the freedoms people enjoy to achieve the functionings they value (Sen, 1999). For instance, a capability is the opportunity to receive HE and the functioning to be able to choose a desired job. Nevertheless the conceptualisation of capabilities leaves the functioning choice to the individual and does not assume that a capability will necessarily become a functioning (Hart, 2013). Capabilities in this paper are also abilities, skills, or capacities as part of a wider concept of a capability (Martínez-Usarralde et al., 2017). Further, the CA acknowledges the ways in which conversion factors (personal, social, and environmental characteristics) influence the achieved functionings of an individual (Robeyns, 2005). This means that these differences in sex, age, geographical location, wealth, and so forth are associated with the ability to convert the resources into capabilities to function (Sen, 1992). CA considers peoples’ heterogeneities and the influence of both the particularities of former students’ social contexts and the characteristics of the societies where they have settled during ISM. Capabilities’ theorists have proposed that CA calls for the use of additional theories to explain well-being which is not possible to do through CA alone (Robeyns, 2005).

To address this, I draw upon transformative learning theory. Mezirow (1997) defines transformative learning as the process by which people transform their frames of reference (the set of assumptions and expectations) through a challenging experience and influenced by personal and sociocultural contextual factors (Mezirow, 2000). These new learning experiences might lead the individual to reconsider the fundamental reasoning behind the notions of the way the world works and, therefore, have the potential to change the person’s perspectives and behavioural practices. In this context, ISM represents a learning experience, which forces students to reorganise pre-conceived frames of reference, enabling them to assimilate new information, to negotiate new environments (Popov et al., 2017) and to act on the new perspectives (Mezirow, 2000). If these learners changed their perspectives through their ISM experience, they were able to construct and adopt new inclusive and self-reflective interpretations of the meaning of their experiences (Mezirow, 1997).

This paper contributes to the literature by integrating transformative learning theory and CA to help explain the complex ways in which, through ISM, individuals act on their lives differently in response to a transformed frame of reference, and overall, which valued capabilities are developed. This is done by analysing opportunities and skills developed and the different options available to the students post mobility, depending on their individual perceptions of a valuable life.


Following a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods for data collection, socio-demographic data was gathered through an online survey from 80 participants who studied in European countries from a unique larger sample of former CONACYT awardees between 2017 and 2018. Furthermore, using a nested sampling strategy, 25 in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants who met the selection criteria and agreed to participate in this study. Only Mexicans with no dual citizenship, without international family backgrounds, and with previous studies to the PhD carried through exclusively in Mexico were invited to the interview phase. Removing variables associated with international backgrounds and mobility enabled the exploration of other drivers for outward mobility, diverse international experiences, personal meanings, and possible associations with their further life trajectories.

The study population was selected from a database of ISM doctoral students supported by the CONACYT scholarship programme between 1997 and 2008. The main reason to focus on the specific period was determined based on the evidence that tracing the pathways of the beneficiaries of scholarships after ten years enables the evaluation of the potential outcomes and impacts of scholarships programmes beyond the individual (Martel, 2017). Additionally, this study aims to contribute to the limited existing body of research focusing exclusively on doctoral students’ experiences. Previous research has highlighted the importance of this group since their motivations to study abroad are largely independent from their parents and they are in transition from consumers to becoming producers of knowledge (Bilecen, 2013; Rizvi, 2010).

After a descriptive analysis of the database, a purposive sampling technique was used to search online for contact details of the 5174 former awardees who conducted their doctoral studies in courses across eight different academic areas, in the eight most popular destinations in the period: the USA (29%), the UK (26%), France and Spain 17% each, Canada (6%), Germany (3%), and Australia and the Netherlands 1% each. Furthermore, a maximum variation sampling method was used to select the participants to which the survey was sent, to obtain a sample of great diversity.

The cross-sectional survey was sent via a link attached to personalised emails. The survey included general questions of sex, age, place of birth, nationality, belonging to original ethnic groups, and place of origin of parents and grandparents. Moreover, it included questions about parental level of education and occupation to use them as proxies for socio-economic background of the participants (Loeb et al., 2017). To trace back educational opportunities, the respondents had to specify the location and the type of institution attended (public or private) for each academic level studied. The instrument also asked if the respondents participated in previous international experiences (credit/degree mobility, short stays), the length of time, and the country. Finally, the participants were asked questions regarding languages including proficiency levels and languages education; professional experiences before their doctoral studies; and if they had additional funding to the CONACYT scholarship. The survey instrument data was analysed using descriptive statistics and simple graphics analysis.

This article draws upon 25 interviews with participants who conducted their doctoral studies in Europe (Appendix 1) and whose identities have been anonymised. The interviews were conducted in Spanish, face-to-face in a single meeting where participants were invited to reflect on the process and decision to study abroad, the overall international experience, the transition process from the doctoral studies, and the meaning of the international experience retrospectively. All the conversations were recorded with the consent of the interviewees.

A first cycle of descriptive coding was applied while transcribing each interview. This process was enriched with the analytic memos contributing towards categorising the emergent themes across the transcriptions and the further development of a coding system. The second cycle of coding consisted of an in vivo and inductive coding (Miles et al., 2014). This process allowed the development of a code key embedded in five major categories representing multiple temporalities that determined the participants’ trajectories. These included (a) decisions to study abroad, (b) prior education, skills, and experiences related to the selection process of the scholarship, (c) international experience, (d) experiences after ISM, and (e) meanings of the international experience retrospectively. Each transcription was then re-analysed using the codebook following an iterative and systematic process with NVivo software.

Findings and discussion

Diverse socio-economic backgrounds

The analysis of the survey showed that the fathers of the participants had a higher level of education than the mothers. Nonetheless, there were still 30% of fathers and 39% of mothers either with no formal education or with low levels of education (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Education levels of the parents of survey respondents

These results were compared against both parents’ occupations, and a direct correlation between the level of studies and the type of economic activity was found. This means that there was a direct proportional relationship between a higher level of studies and higher skilled jobs. Fathers with no formal education or low levels of education worked mainly in agriculture, construction, sales, and low-skilled labour or were unemployed. Moreover, 42% of mothers were housewives and half of those had lower levels of education up to secondary and 22% had technical education. Traditional values and gender roles are still generally prevalent in Mexico, especially amongst working-class families where the division of labour is based on gender—the male is the breadwinner, and housework and child-rearing responsibilities are part of the feminine role in marriage. There is also an association between social class and gender inequalities where women’s vulnerability and subordination are greater in lower social strata (Salles & Tuirán, 1995) .

Focusing exclusively on the 25 interviewees that studied in Europe, the data showed that 40% of fathers and 44% of mothers had no formal education or had low levels of education. Moreover, over half of the interviewees were brought up in families where the mothers had only housework activities and the fathers were bricklayers, traders, or low-skilled workers (Appendix 2). The quantitative findings show a high proportion of parents of this study population without undergraduate studies and who performed low skilled jobs. The qualitative findings additionally show that the participants considered their mothers’ housework as an occupation and generally associated it with their working-class backgrounds. These findings suggest that the CONACYT scholarship has supported a significant number of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The next quote from a participant, who was the first generation to get a university degree, complements the quantitative findings depicting challenging socio-economic backgrounds:

My mother was a “housewife” and did not finish primary school. My father had even less education, he used to be a worker in a textile factory and when he had a pension, he used to do small bricklaying and farming work. My mother knitted and bred birds to give me that money for transport…. her saying was “have at least for transport, when you come back home you can fill the gut” It was not easy. (Alvaro, Technische Universiteit Eindhoven)

The findings revealed that some participants were brought up in families with low socio-economic backgrounds and economic constraints which determined to a great extent their previous educational opportunities. The respondents were able to reflect about their family backgrounds and how these influenced their overall educational trajectories including their participation in HE. Furthermore, they identified themselves in respect of their backgrounds and the circumstances in which they lived as either “privileged” or “disadvantaged”. From a CA perspective, identifying the social constraints limiting their well-being in their specific contexts was helpful when reflecting later, on the expansion of freedoms through ISM.

Decisions to study abroad

The analysis of the answers from the interviewees showed that their reasons for studying abroad were either related to academic choices and aspirations for their life trajectories, or the desire to travel and have international experiences. In other words, the motivations to study abroad were driven on the one hand by the capabilities they wanted to develop and on the other, by the different lives they aspired to and the functionings they wanted to achieve. Some participants mentioned a single reason, while others recognised several reasons why they wanted to engage in ISM.

Due to space limitations, only the most frequently mentioned examples highlighting educational, socio-cultural, and economic factors will be discussed in this paper, shedding some light about choices of study destinations of this sample.

Educational factors

The respondents who mentioned pursuing ISM for the increased value of the international degree often associated educational mobility with the possibility of enhancing their opportunities in the labour-market upon return. Carmen, for instance, did her undergraduate studies in Mexico and wanted to pursue a researcher career as explained in the next quote:

I began to get involved with people from the Institute and the Faculty of Engineering and I realised that what I wanted was to do geophysics research. I enquired about what I needed for that job and everyone told me “you need to get a PhD”. To be a researcher you must get a PhD and a lot of academic experience to build a strong curriculum. And at the time, it was popular to study abroad. We are a little bit malinchistas, and thus if you obtain the degree here is not as prestigious as if you get it in a foreign country. (Carmen, Universidad de Barcelona)

Carmen used the word malinchista referring to the attitude that denotes attachment to what is foreign and contempt of one’s own, suggesting that there were already available consolidated doctoral programmes in Mexico at the time. These findings suggest that overseas-educated Mexican graduates have better employability opportunities in the academic sector, than students locally trained. Recognition of international qualifications in the home country has been found to be a decisive push factor for students to seek international education (Mazzarol & Soutar, 2002). Additionally, there is an expectation of mobility as “a rite of passage” rooted in the academic progression systems and emphasised in particular academic areas, which was echoed by all the participants working in academia (Ackers, 2008).

The influence of Master’s tutors who had studied abroad and encouraged them to find their own international experiences was also mentioned by some interviewees. Social relations built at university and in the workplace have been found to be influential on the educational trajectories of overseas-educated Mexican graduates (Lopez, 2019). These findings also support previous research showing that teachers and people working in the students’ fields of interest were fundamental in their decisions to study abroad (Beech, 2015). Most of the interviewees were either working or doing masters’ degrees in Mexico with consolidated research groups, explaining the ways in which these social interactions (conversion factors) and previous capabilities influenced their decision-making processes and shaped their ISM experiences.

Socio-cultural factors

Language was amongst the most important pull factor determining the selection of countries and institutions for the participants. Some of them mentioned the acquisition of language as an additional capability they were particularly interested in while studying abroad. For instance, two participants were interested in mastering English, an aspect depicted in Paola’s quote:

My intention was always doing a PhD in an English-speaking country because the sciences are written mainly in English. I had some private language instruction because the English level in public schools is bad. Thus, I wanted to continue perfecting the language. (Paola, University of Sheffield)

Some interviewees placed language in equal importance as academic quality and the prestige of the institution, arguing that English was the common language of instruction in the most renowned universities (De Wit, 2008).

The three participants who were supported by a joint scholarship such as the CONACYT-DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) were attracted by the intensive German courses offered as part of the award as articulated by Juan´s quote:

I thought about going to the UK or USA. However, I went to an informative talk with people from the DAAD and they offered the German course…. and a scholarship up to six months to learn German, I was already taking some lessons at the Goethe institute in Mexico. (Juan, Technische Universitat Hamburg)

These findings differ from the Lopez (2019) study where learning languages was not a relevant factor in the decision to study abroad. Finally, the lack of language proficiency was a decisive factor for two participants who attended Spanish institutions, as explained by Jimena:

For USA and UK institutions you had to show evidence of English proficiency. My husband did not meet the requirement…. Therefore, we ruled out those options…That is how we ended up in Spain… (Jimena, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela)

These findings suggest an association between previous language learning opportunities, interest in different cultures, learning disposition in developing further language capabilities that were not restricted to English, and the different functionings the participants wanted to achieve.

Some interviewees mentioned motivations associated with their interest in travelling, “opening their panoramas”, learning about other cultures and ways of being and doing, and overall having new experiences. These examples resonate with previous research where gaining life experiences, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of different cultures, and meeting people from other countries were frequent reasons to engage in ISM (Knight & Madden, 2010; Van Mol & Timmerman, 2014). Personal reasons can be multifaceted and are determined by individual contexts and personal aspirations.

Finally, two female interviewees explained how their husbands were the ones aspiring to study abroad and they decided to support them. As professional women, they seized the opportunity and chose to pursue doctoral studies at the same time.

My husband got an offer to do his doctoral studies. Thus, I said “make the most out of the opportunity” because we are both academics… I told him “go and then I will follow you” He had an opportunity and thus I looked for mine…. And obviously I looked in the UK and I finally found something I liked. (Gloria, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

These examples support the argument that amongst the heterogeneity of international students, there are several identities that must be considered when analysing the decisions to study abroad. This means that these students can be partners, parents, workers, and students simultaneously. Moreover, these findings contribute to the limited literature recognising international doctoral female students as partners and the different decision-making processes for ISM associated with these identities (Ackers, L (2000) cited in Brooks, 2015; Geddie, 2013; Leung, 2017).

Economic factors

Some participants were explicit about their motivations to study abroad to get specific academic positions or increase their career prospects. Fidel for instance said, “I always wanted to get the job I have, and I knew very well that the only way to get it was to get a PhD abroad”. For Dinora, who was already a researcher in an institution in the state of Baja California, getting training abroad meant increasing the possibility of climbing the academic ladder. These participants mentioned choosing subjects for their doctoral studies that at the time were not being taught in Mexico. Previous studies have highlighted the importance students give to the possibility of improving their chances to get better jobs after ISM (Holloway et al., 2012), often outweighing other personal interests (Brooks & Waters, 2011). These results can be explained by the lack of job opportunities and professional development in some scientific areas in Mexico in the 1990s.

Overall, these findings suggest a complex mix of drivers for outward mobility that were determined by the individual socio-economic conditions, previous educational opportunities, and future life aspirations of the interviewees. The different aspirations to engage in ISM were determined by the participants’ diverse freedoms (opportunities) to achieve the different valued goals of mobility (specialisations, better jobs, language skills).

ISM as a driver for upward social mobility

Alvaro had a working-class upbringing in the state of Hidalgo, and he mentioned that owning a foreign degree placed him in an advantaged position versus doctors trained in Mexico when applying for jobs. He also considered his current academic life-path and social position was enabled by studying abroad. Aldo, from Mexico City, had a similar background to Alvaro, where his parents did not finish primary education:

It had a great impact on my social mobility compared to my parents. In fact, from all my family I was the first one to get a master´s degree and a doctorate. They see me as an example that through studying you can accomplish other things. Therefore, it did impact quite strongly…. This is not to become a millionaire, but it allows you to have a decent life. (Aldo, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, Spain)

Federico, from a working-class family from the state of Veracruz, also commented:

I am in a much better position than my parents, definitively. In academic and economic terms… I am definitively better, and I associate that to a great extent to the international experience. If I had stayed in Mexico, I could have escalated probably less quickly, possibly with less opportunities…. The international experience accelerated my ascent and things were easier and faster. (Federico, Max-Plank Institute, Germany)

These findings suggest that possibilities for upward social mobility are linked to the accumulating effect of the acquisition of HE for first-generation students on the one hand, and the increased opportunities associated with the portability of an international degree on the other. HE in this sense is considered a capability in itself, enabling the international students to expand other capabilities and opportunities, which in turn expands their agency to choose what they value (Sen, 1992). University education in Mexico has been one of the most important symbols of social mobility (Lorey, 1993) and further ISM is recognised as a driver for the same social opportunities (Beck (2006) cited in Bilecen & Van Mol, 2017; Leung, 2017).

These findings also highlight that regardless of their backgrounds, the participants identified ISM as an enabler of labour market opportunities, and in some cases as a mean towards social mobility. These findings mirror those previously reported where a high proportion of CONACYT scholarship awardees came from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds (Centro Redes, 2008). Furthermore, these findings also offer different conclusions from previous studies identifying former CONACYT awardees pursuing international doctorates as coming exclusively from middle-class households (Lopez, 2017).

Social change and different life paths

A key aim from this study was to unpack the different ways overseas-educated Mexican graduates contribute to their societies. The academic and non-academic capabilities the participants acquired through ISM expanded their social and educational opportunities enabling the development of rational choices and freedoms to choose a life that was valuable to them.

Applied research

From the descriptions of the participants’ research activities and academic trajectories, it can be drawn that these former scholarship awardees are contributing with science, technology, and innovation activities, and conducting high-quality research in their areas of expertise. For instance, at the time of the interviews, 18 out of the 25 participants were working as researchers in research centres or public universities across the country. Some of their research topics include the identification of risk factors of breast cancer, migration and health, migration and human rights and social aspects of HIV epidemics and geophysics, and geothermic and clean energies. The use of geothermal energy is an area still not extensively developed in Mexico.

At the HE institutional level, Aldo contributes to local development through his applied research at a polytechnic university located in a rural area of Hidalgo:

Currently we are focusing on the development of processes to make the most of agricultural residues. Particularly in developing new processes that are attractive for the regional people…. this is a marginal region. Therefore, we are trying to make the most of those residues that have low nutritional value for the cattle, to use them elsewhere. (Aldo, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares)

He added that through his broadened perspective acquired abroad, his ambition was to be able to provide his students with a “first world laboratory” with state-of-the-art reagents, equipment, and infrastructure. These findings mirror Marsh et al. (2016) where the majority of their participants worked in academia or research institutions when they returned to African countries. Additionally, these returnees contribute to knowledge transfer and scientific advancement (Jonkers & Cruz-Castro, 2013), use state of the art techniques, and research independence (Groves et al., 2018) in benefit of the non-geographically mobile community.

Network building, international research collaboration, and student exchange

Aldo highlighted how ISM enabled him to participate in international research collaborations and how these interactions with “the other” helped him to grow at a personal level. He then added:

I arrived with other ideas, eager to do other things…. you develop links with other researchers that you met abroad and now they are working in other countries. This has allowed me to grow quickly, generate research networks at an Ibero-American level. I also work a lot with Europeans. Why? Because I had that contact that you only get when you get out of your country. (Aldo, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares)

Cesar mentioned that it was very enriching meeting researchers from different institutions enabling him to acquire a global perspective on his area of expertise. Javier described it as an “added value because you strengthen your networks and learn different ways to do academia that you cannot learn if you stay in your home country”.

Additionally, three participants highlighted how, through their ISM experiences, student exchanges between institutions were enabled, as discussed in the next quote:

A year ago, we had a problem with an experiment that was not working… I found a group in Scotland, and I wrote to the researcher and asked for their help. I asked if I could send one of my students, therefore Tatiana went there for three months and came back. We are still in contact, and we just wrote a project for a grant together. And now we are focused on the students’ mobility. I already have ideas to do some experiments in collaboration. (Cyntia, University of Sheffield)

Finally, Alvaro said that he encourages students to look for educational opportunities abroad: “In that sense it leaves a mark. Being able to share the experience and push the ones that come behind you. You have arrived, now push the rest”. This is also reflected in Juan´s comment:

….my knowledge allows me to help students to do more things, that is my feeling…. we talk about so many things. When there is extra time, I tell them to look for opportunities abroad, I talk to them about the DAAD. If I was not here, there would be no one to tell them those things. (Juan, Technische Universitat Hamburg)

In the particular case of the CONACYT-DAAD joint scholarship, the findings show a clear exertion of “soft power”, playing an important role disseminating Western cultural, political, scientific, and academic practices and ideas (Brooks & Waters, 2011). Nonetheless, the construction of transnational networks has been previously recognised as an important outcome of ISM for the possibilities it offers in terms of international collaborative research, and further student exchanges (Gérard & Maldonado, 2009; Murakami, 2014). Therefore, it can be argued that these Mexican returnees develop strong ties with the host nations benefitting the home country in different ways.

Teaching and positive influence over local students

Some participants mentioned having learned different teaching traditions abroad and how they apply them into their everyday teaching practices. Arturo and Jimena for instance explained how they encourage students to be independent learners. Aldo in this regard said:

They arrive to the laboratory, they know what they have to do, if they have a problem, they do some research and if they cannot solve it, they come to me and we try to solve it together. (Aldo, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares)

These transformative learning experiences challenged the preconceived ways of teaching and enabled them to adopt pedagogies to foster individual thinking. Four participants described how their main activities are focused on teaching and administrative responsibilities rather than research. Mario said:

It is very fulfilling… I arrived when the institute was trying to push forward the quality of postgraduate courses… And I have been able to work a lot in the reformation of the programmes, restructure them in pursuit of quality. (Mario, Universitat Stuttgart)

There is limited literature exploring how ISM changes international students’ teaching practices, and the ways in which these returnees influence their students. For instance, Paige et al. (2009) revealed that former international students contributed to the creation of courses related to global citizenship in a Japanese university and encouraged their students to study abroad; and Spanish academics have recognised the influence of their international mobility experiences in the USA on their teaching practices (Groves et al., 2018). Notwithstanding the relatively limited sample, these findings offer valuable insights into these other contributions of ISM enabled by the scholarship that are often absent from the literature.

Working with vulnerable communities and sustainable development

Humberto and Claudia work in NGOs in the states of Morelos and Quintana Roo. Humberto works in an NGO with a philanthropic endeavour focused on social welfare associated with environmental conservation. Claudia’s work, based on her doctoral research, has supported indigenous communities for over a decade:

Last year I was finally able to create my civil association…. I have been working in sustainable development for 15 years. I have recovered a tradition of eating a seed from the Rain Forest, that was no longer being eaten... Thus, the need to go back to a virtuous circle, to eat, to grow and generate an income. And is also a project to empower women…. Thus, I train women to remind them how to eat the seeds, to grow them, what to do with them and then sell them. (Claudia, Imperial College)

These last two aspects of mobility, influencing students and working with vulnerable communities, echo Rizvi’s (2009) discussion regarding the effects of mobility upon those who are not geographically mobile. This suggests the recognition of space produced through socio-spatial relations and the connections between everyday practices, social relationships, and collective actions (Rizvi, 2009). Therefore, it could be argued that the Mexican classrooms and the community where the former international students interact become in some ways, transnational spaces. These findings further confirm earlier studies where returnees have generated social change through the creation of non-profit organisations or participation in organisations focused on community development and empowerment (Marsh et al., 2016).


This paper aimed to explore the wider benefits of educational mobility from a human development lens moving beyond the human capital approaches that have focused exclusively on the economic opportunities enabled by ISM. Therefore, it examined the different meanings and understandings of ISM for former Mexican doctoral students who were supported by the CONACYT scholarship programme. Specifically, it aimed to analyse the distribution of mobility opportunities to Europe, the individual drivers to engage in mobility, and the social implications of the international experiences over their further life trajectories and for social change.

Firstly, the findings revealed significant participation of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds supported by the CONACYT scholarship programme. They also showed how, despite diverse economic constraints, these mobile students, supported by the scholarship, were able to have better lives and professional opportunities than those of their parents.

Secondly, the paper showed how diverse motivations to study abroad were strongly linked to educational trajectories but were additionally driven by educational, socio-cultural, and economic factors. The diverse associations between these factors were determined by the participants’ individual previous opportunities, personal circumstances (partners, spouses), and their future life aspirations. Moreover, individual language skills were a strong driver to pursue education abroad but were also a determinant factor in choosing specific European countries. The participants’ diverse freedoms determined the ultimate reasons to pursue ISM, for instance, to aspire to better jobs, to develop language skills, to get specialised training in their fields, or to broaden their perspectives. The mobility experience, therefore, was transformative and an integral part of the participants’ development both for intrinsic and instrumental reasons (de Haas & Rodríguez, 2010) .

Lastly, the findings showed how for some participants the international experience represented the possibility of upward social mobility, mainly through the diversification of future professional opportunities. One of the significant findings to emerge from this study is the different life paths the doctoral students chose after ISM and the ways in which they contribute to social change. These findings suggest that the investment on doctoral training through public funds supports important areas for the country such as public infrastructure, public health, agriculture, geophysics, education, and environmental conservation. This study also shows that there is a plethora of non-economic gains fostered by ISM programmes, which are focused on individual agency and well-being with positive ripple effects on societies.