Feb 16, 2024

How education is spawning a new generation of leaders in Cambodia

Sien Sok-Ny takes her children to school on her motorbike

Sponsoring the education of students in foreign countries is a typical way for Americans to make donations in the third-world. You write a check. A photo comes in the mail. Rarely do you learn more, or hear from the organization again until it‘s time to donate again.

That‘s not been the case with our 20-year-long association with Eugene, Oregon-based Friendship with Cambodia to whose scholarship program we’ve been supporting every since we traveled with the founder, Bhavia Wagner, on a tour in 2004. Letters, updates and pictures went back and forth between us and the six students from poor, rural villages we sponsored over the years. This month, on a return trip to Cambodia, we met two in person, and it was a joy to celebrate their success.

Sien Sok-Ny, now 37, pictured above with two of her three children, cried when we walked through the door of Holt International, a non-profit that coordinates the sponsorships for Friendship with Cambodia. She opened a notebook where she kept the letters and photos we exchanged between 2010-14 while she was studying at the National University of Management in Phnom Penh.

She presented us with gifts - a  hand-woven scarf, a table covering and a jar of local honey -from the indigenous (ethnic) communities of women she has involved in supporting since her graduation. While her two boys did homework and played games on a lap top and iPhone, we talked about how her life had progressed from the time she was an only child in a rural, indigenous farming village, needed by her parents to clean the house and feed the cows in the morning, all before hopping on the back of a friend’s bicycle to ride the four miles to high school and back.

 Her 10-year goal after moving to Phnom Penh on the scholarship and graduating, was to have two children, a car and a house. She laughed that she ended up with three children, a motorbike and a rented house, but both she and her husband, a motorcycle repairman with his own business, are doing well enough to send their children to private school. After working for a while as project officer for the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Organization, she now freelances, volunteers and raises money for Indigenous causes online through a YouTube channel featuring songs she writes and sings with a small group.

In Cambodia with Sien Sok-Ny and her two boys

Earlier in the week, we attended a Sunday morning meeting Holt organizes for the FWC-sponsored students at its offices in Phnom Penh. Gathered in a circle around a projector and screen, 15 students, alumni and staff shared experiences in a mentoring session aimed at helping each other through adjustments from life in rural villages to universities in a big, busy city. FWC’s program includes not only tuition assistance but wrap-around care such as these mentoring meetings, English classes, a small subsidy for living expenses, and encouraging the students to organize community service projects in their home villages. FWC’s focus is mainly on empowering women and girls, but young men are also part of the scholarship program including one we sponsored who went on to become an electrical engineer. 

Royal University graduate Sung Sreyhuon is a social worker 

After practicing their public speaking skills with a presentation on the  increase in traffic accidents in Cambodia, and how to prevent them, several of the students talked about their community service projects. One taught village children how to brush their teeth and wash their hands. Another plans to start a community library. 

Sung Sreyhuon, 22, above, a social worker involved with a  project aimed at preventing the trafficking of young women,  told the students that without her scholarship support, “I would probably be a factory worker right now.”  She emphasized the self-confidence and leadership skills she gained, and encouraged perseverance, sometimes against family pushback when it comes girls  leaving home for school. She recalled her parents telling her,  “You‘re a woman. You need to be a man’s wife.”  Instead, she went onto college and became the first in her family to graduate, an accomplishment for which her parents are now very proud. Like most of the graduates, she helps her family with financial support and provides school supplies and some money for her cousin’s education.

At lunch with the students in Phnom Penh 

The meeting ended with a lunch of Cambodian specialties such as fish and pork dishes and platters of bright red Dragon fruit in honor of the beginning of the Lunar New Year and Year of the Dragon. Pictured on the right and below is Chanminea, 19, the student we are currently sponsoring. She is entering her third year in nursing school. We couldn’t be more proud of her success.

FWC‘s current class of students, alumni and staff at a Sunday gathering in Phnom Penh

Very few rural students go to university because their families are so poor. More than half of Cambodian children drop out in grade school. Only 21% enroll in high school. Friendship with Cambodia supports about 48 students in university every year. The cost to sponsor a student is about $1500 per year.

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