Issue Date: October 24, 2011
Haven Of Hope In Cambodia
“Oh my gosh; it is like a palace,” Raksmey Suon recalls thinking the first time she laid eyes on the Harpswell Foundation dormitory for women in 2006. She remembers being delighted by the building’s façade decorated with motifs of apsaras, mythical heavenly dancers that are one of Cambodia’s most beloved cultural symbols.
She remembers pausing on seeing a plaque saying: The mission of the Harpswell Foundation is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world. “That sentence made me feel so inspired,” Suon says. “I will be trained to be a leader.” Today she teaches chemistry and biology to high school students at the Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA), a Cambodian school with high ambitions: to send all its graduates to college in the U.S.
The dorm is in Boeung Trabek, in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. It accommodates 36 residents. A second building, in a part of Phnom Penh called Teuk Thla, opened in 2009 with space for 48 residents. With well-tended courtyards, clean kitchens, and quiet computer rooms, the two buildings are a world apart from the rest of Phnom Penh. Outside, one is immediately assaulted by poverty, trash, and the high-pitched noise of tuk tuks—ubiquitous motorbikes pulling carriages conveying people.
The Harpswell dormitory is a haven nurturing young women who will help rebuild Cambodia’s professional class. It hopes to prove that high expectations and a safe, healthy, and inspiring learning environment bring out the best even from the most underprivileged students.
Living conditions in the Harpswell dorm are orders of magnitude better than what the residents have known, says Alan Lightman. The physicist and writer founded the nonprofit Harpswell Foundation after hearing in 2003 the story of a female law graduate who lived in a crawl space under the law school building while in college. The young women grew up in rural areas, he says, in one-room dwellings made of thatched palm leaves, with no electricity or plumbing. “The normal future for them would have been to be taken out of school at age 13 or 14 to work in the rice fields, married at age 15 or 16, unless they were sold into prostitution by their parents,” Lightman adds.
If the young women can find jobs, “many will be working in a garment factory for extremely low pay and poor conditions,” notes Annette Jensen, executive director of A New Day Cambodia, a nongovernmental organization. “A very small percentage in the city will get work in a restaurant, a bar, or a shop.”
Because of poverty, many Cambodian families consider the education of daughters dispensable. “Girls do not need education, according to Cambodian tradition,” says Dany So, a former resident who now teaches math and physics to high school students at JPA. If girls must “just cook and take care of family,” she continues, “why spend for an education?”
To go to college in Cambodia, students usually must live in Phnom Penh, where most of the universities are located. In the city, male students can live free in Buddhist temples, but female students must rent lodgings. With expenses for food, educational materials, and transportation, a student needs $70 to $100 a month, unaffordable for many families. But families that can afford the expense may still forbid their daughters to live in the city for fear that the girls might become victims of robbery, rape, or human trafficking.
The Harpswell Foundation Dormitory & Leadership Centers, as the two facilities are formally called, make it both affordable and safe for young women to go to college in Phnom Penh. The program, says Kantha Phavi Ing, head of Cambodia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs, “especially benefits those women who, due to their economic and geographic backgrounds, would never have had the chance to access or complete tertiary-level education.”
Admission is highly selective. For example, the foundation interviewed the four highest-ranked female students at 40 high schools for the latest batch of residents and granted admission to just 21 young women. The foundation evaluates transcripts, grades on the Cambodian national high school exam, and an essay that responds to the question: What do you plan to do with your life after you graduate from university? Selection is based on intelligence, ambition, and leadership potential. Those accepted, Lightman says, “are the cream of the cream of the crop.”
Residents receive free room and board, free English-language instruction, and free leadership training. They have access to a library and a computer room with Internet connection. The foundation also assists students who do not have full tuition scholarships and provides transportation. And it arranges local internships for students while still in college and for five graduates each year to do postgraduate work in the U.S. Plus, Lightman, whom residents refer to as Dad, arranges a fun outing once a year—for example, to the beach or the famous temples of Angkor Wat.
What a difference the dorm makes in the lives of its residents. For example, Sokngim Kim, now a fourth-year mathematics major at Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), says she needed $15 per month for food and electricity during her first year of college, when she lived with relatives. But the place was far from the university, and for her second year Kim lived in a room that she rented for $30 per month. The room’s building was dirty and crowded with workers who made a lot of noise in the evenings; it was difficult to study, she says. Kim was accepted to the Harpswell dorm at the start of her third year. Now, she says, she needs only $10 per semester for books.
The dorm teaches community-living and other skills, says Sothida Tong, also a fourth-year math major at RUPP. “We do chores, learn English, and talk about Cambodia,” Tong explains, referring to cleaning and cooking duties, English-language lessons, and discussions of current events featured in the English newspaper Cambodia Daily. “We develop communication skills and we help each other,” she adds, explaining that because Harpswell residents are expected to be at the top 10 of their courses, she and older residents tutor their younger dorm mates in various subjects.
“I have changed a lot while I’ve lived in Harpswell,” says Sreypov Rous, a second-year economic development major at Cambodian Mekong University. “I have confidence; I can say what I think. I have leadership skills,” she explains. And the dorm fosters sharing, Rous adds. “Before I had only two sisters; now I have 80 sisters,” she declares with a big smile.
Cambodia feels like a country frozen in time. National Route 6, the highway from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, is a two-lane road; many rural areas do not have electricity; even in the capital, access to piped water is limited. The horrors perpetrated by the dictator Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979 and the civil war after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge left the country with almost no professional class, little infrastructure, and an uneducated and poor population. The economy is based on agriculture, services, and light industry. Cambodia’s gross domestic product in 2010 was about $11.3 billion.
“We focus on women for two reasons,” Lightman says about the Harpswell Foundation. “First, women in Cambodia are disadvantaged relative to men in opportunities for education, jobs, and status. Second, studies by a number of international organizations in the last 10 years have clearly shown that the most effective way to help developing countries is by educating and empowering their women. In general, women are more concerned with health care, education, and community building.”
The dorm’s leadership training program, among others, will help residents prepare themselves to be Cambodia’s future leaders, says Kim Savun, head of the international office of relations of the Royal University of Law & Economics, where several residents are studying law. The young women will have a multiplier effect, he predicts, as they share their knowledge and experiences with other Cambodian women.
“I want to be a CEO of a food factory in my province,” says Lina Hun, a fourth-year student of chemical engineering and food technology at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. She comes from Oddar Meanchey, on the border with Thailand, about 300 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. The province, she explains, has a lot of agricultural produce but cannot convert it into food that has a long shelf life. Bamboo shoots, for example, often get sold to Thailand, where they are made into sour or salty products. “If my dream comes true,” she continues, “people can work in the factory and they will not move to Phnom Penh to find work.”
Others say they want to educate Cambodian youth, build infrastructure, establish businesses, improve manufacturing processes, raise the quality of manufactured goods, solve environmental problems, protect ethnic minorities, and establish scholarships for other underprivileged children.
Those who have graduated “have already been able to join international development agencies and private companies,” women’s affairs head Ing points out. “We are sure that their contribution to the economic and social development of Cambodia will be significant.”
Harpswell alumnae Suon and So are already contributing to Cambodia’s socioeconomic development by teaching at JPA, near Tachet Village, outside the city of Siem Reap, 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. Funded by the Jay Pritzker Foundation, the college preparatory school expects its students to be among Cambodia’s future leaders.
Like the Harpswell dorm, JPA is a haven. Its students come from poor rural families and were selected for their exceptional academic skills and leadership potential. They receive free meals, free uniforms, and free education.
Suon and So joined JPA after completing postgraduate fellowships in the U.S.: Suon at Bard College, north of New York City, and So at Agnes Scott College, in Atlanta. Suon also completed a two-month teaching internship at Brookline High School, in Boston.
The two are now helping 11th-grade students prepare for the science and math sections of Cambodia’s national high school exams. This is JPA’s first class to take these exams. The school’s goal is to send all its graduates to U.S. universities, but officials do not expect 100% success for the first graduates. That’s because until the school opened in 2008, those students were in government schools. Plan B is to attend a Cambodian university, which would require high scores on the national exam. “Suon and So are well positioned to help them,” says Steven McCambridge, the academy’s facilities director, “because they both passed the national exams with flying colors.”
JPA’s principal, Hedi Belkaoui, says he hired the Harpswell alumnae on the basis of intelligence, ability to discuss educational issues, and experience. “They clearly understood how important the school is for Cambodia’s development. They know exactly what it is like for our students working this hard in this environment,” he says.
“I am very impressed with what they brought [to the school] and how they’ve grown” in their jobs, Belkaoui continues. “They are head and shoulders above their Cambodian counterparts. They are quite different.” ◾
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