In partnership with the PLF, a group of seven students from the Eugene Lang College at the New School in NYC spent five weeks conducting various innovative projects at PLF sponsored schools. Below is a write up from an ethnographic project, carried out by Ashley Vidal and Kristen Turner.
For four weeks, we, two American university students, worked alongside the Ponheary Ly Foundation on a research project that consisted of conducting a series of interviews with students entering grade 10. The project was concerned with students at two Cambodian public schools, Knar School and Tchey School. The Ponheary Ly Foundation supports both schools in various ways, one of which is providing full scholarships to students who otherwise would not be able to afford unavoidable monthly exam fees, as well as other costs that often serve as immense burdens to students attending public school. These scholarships are awarded to students who have passed their grade 9 exams, and will be entering high school (grade 10) in the fall. This year is a first for PLF, as it is the first year that the foundation will have to undergo a process of choosing which applicants the scholarship will be awarded to. Out of approximately 132applicants, the foundation will able to fund about 80. The interviews we conducted worked to gather the demographic and personal information of students that have applied for these scholarships, for the purpose of comprising a series of student biographies in order to allow PLF to better grasp the range of “need” that exist among the applicants.
The concept of “need” was assessed in multiple ways, including household income, family dynamic, academic performance, and school attendance. These interviews consisted of entering the students’ homes, meeting their families, and, overall, familiarizing ourselves with context within which these students live every single day. This information, and the approach used to gather this information, is important because it allows the foundation to fund those who are in greatest need of the scholarship money, as well as understand the circumstances and struggles that exist within the context of the village and the lives of each student, so that the foundation can, in turn, provide a relevant approach to the work they do within the community and the school.
As students, volunteers, and researchers all at once, we experienced an unique spectrum of emotion, revelation, cultural insight, and perspective that we could not have learned in any other forum. These are the gifts that we take away from our work, but the fruits of our labor were not uncomplicated and unproblematic. The work is difficult: we entered homes, listened to the daily struggles of students and families, and knew, ultimately, that we had the privilege of walking away at the conclusion of the interview. Throughout this project, we found ourselves confronting an array of complex and conflicting realities, in terms of grappling with the implications of our presence within these villages and homes, as well as attempting to make sense of how the “poorest” youth were supposed to be chosen from a community where every family seemed to be “poor”. Moving forward, however, these experiences will become the framework upon which we can begin to understand the bridge between “conflict” and “resolution”, the multi-layered approach that the building of this bridge requires, as well as an altered understanding of what “poverty” and “need” may mean in a given context, and how, in another context, these concepts may prove to mean something entirely different. Beyond what we will be taking away, what we are leaving behind is the information necessary for PLF to gain a deeper understanding of the needs of each student, and, ultimately, award 80 of these youth the funds and the opportunity to attend school for the next three years.
by Ashley Vidal and Kristen Turner