By Caroline Stafford
This summer marked my 4th in Cambodia volunteering with the PLF. Among the various ways we set out to help this year, perhaps the most challenging-well at least logistically- was the launch of the first ever PLF Careers Fair.
The purpose of the fair held over several days was to give graduating and near graduating students some training on applying for a job in a western company from the perspective of someone their age. My experience volunteering at a Careers Fair in London for the homeless had made me think something similar might be helpful for the PLF. Around fifty students, ranging from ages 14 to 22 participated in the event.
The fact that PLF now has graduating students is a reflection, itself, of the foundation’s incredible success. PLF started by helping only primary school children, but the PLF’s mission has evolved with the needs of the children. As the first students they supported made it past 6th grade, these children were keen to move to the next stage. PLF did not want to abandon them and so supported these older students through the PLF scholarship program, which provides bicycles to commute the long distances, learning support and for some living accommodation. This July marked a major milestone-the first of these older students graduating from high school.
Over the years, we have watched the evolution of the PLF mission and tried to play a small role each year as volunteers. In some ways, we have grown up with these students. Well perhaps not these exact ones, but ones like them. But the comparison is of course bittersweet. As we dream of university, for these students high school will be the end of their formal education. A challenge exacerbated for some by chronic health issues-persistent headaches, eye problems, and stomach issues-to name a few, mainly from earlier malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.
So, for my brother Jamie and I, the work this year was all about helping these students with some of the basics needed for finding a job. Tourism is still the mainstay industry in Siem Reap and armed with some English and computer skills provided by the PLF, finding a job with a hotel or restaurant might be an area of opportunity. The goal was to create for each student a CV and cover letter, on a USB so they could amend the details in the future and to provide some basic interview techniques and some do and don’ts of working in a western environment.
Meticulous hours were spent planning the event as we had much to accomplish. We started with some of the basics, like what is a CV and cover letter used for and how should they be amended to suit a specific job. All the students then needed their picture taken against a blue background with a white shirt, a requirement in Cambodia for a resume. We then began the more time consuming task of personalising each CV with their details, a process aided by PLF staff to help with translation and ensure we best reflected the students’ particular strengths.
Interview technique was done through mock roll playing which the students seem to really enjoy. One by one, in front of their peers, we worked on interview skills, everything from body language to shaking hands to mock questions for a pretend job of their choice.
The students were comparatively shy and modest about their accomplishments. It is funny, confidence is something we just take for granted in the west. It comes and improves each year in so many ways-through positive feedback, our parent’s support and exposure to things like public speaking and drama, to name a few ways we have grown ourselves. So we realised even more poignantly how far they had come without any of the so many foundations of support and feedback we have in our lives.
What gave us the most pleasure this year was feeling in some small way that we could contribute to a sense of positive belief. As they tentatively began to practice interviews or receive feedback in a range of interactive sessions, we could feel students growing in confidence. And while they didn’t realise it-this gave us confidence too.
In a country that relies so heavily on aid, the next step for these and other students is of course economic independence. The PLF understands this only too well. Each student everywhere is a mentor, a role model for others, a possible agent of change. Access to education is everything-as the PLF would say, school is the answer.
As the first PLF students move into the world, we felt a new sense of hope, hope not just for them and their future, but hope for this country as well.