Throughout the week we have been sharing our favorite moments from the Srayang Mentorship field trip to Siem Reap; inspiring advice from students, curious eyes and minds touring the high school and the refrigerators. The smallest details are so important and often the easiest to share in a few concise words. But there is one grander idea that struck a note with all of us this past month, an idea that merits a moment’s reflection.
We are constantly singing the highest praises of education to our students, bringing guest speakers and graduates back to share their experiences, and endlessly encouraging our students to keep pushing forward. We do this for every PLF student, and sometimes it is enough. For students from the deep countryside, these small gestures keep students curious, hopeful, and imagining their future. But they are a tiny piece of hope to cling to, an idea of a thing, to throw in the face of the daily challenge of fighting onward.
For our Secondary School students at the dormitory in Srayang, we are talking about an area where only one student has ever continued onto University (this year, no less). There was no school in Koh Ker village when these students were born, and the most educated person in the village at that time had studied until Grade 3. The Srayang students have never seen a University with their own eyes. They’ve spent their childhoods foraging in the forest or laboring in the fields after school with every other family in the village. Imagine growing up in Koh Ker Village and trying to hold onto the conviction that you will get your bachelor’s degree. You’ve heard about university, you’ve heard about the possibilities that education can bring, you’ve met Channy, the one university student. But it is your daily surroundings, the community you grow up in, the majority, that will always speak louder than the exception.
The capital G Goal of the Srayang mentorship field trip is for our Secondary School students from Koh Ker and Romchek villages, our two remotest projects, to have the chance to spend time in Siem Reap and see their future path with their own eyes. To see Siem Reap for themselves, to walk the halls of the high school, to see the bed they will sleep on at the dorm, to meet the older students they will live with, to see, to touch, to be in that space. It is an opportunity without substitute. It is one thousand times more powerful than the words that any one of us could use, standing in front of a room of young students from the remote countryside, to put a clear picture in their head. If you know exactly what you want out of your future and can envision yourself in that place, you will always be one thousand times more equipped to go out and get it.
At the end of a full day of touring, three PLF High School students studying in Siem Reap spoke to the group. They shared their advice, their experiences, answered questions from their peers, and we all sat down to dinner. Older students from Romchek and Koh Ker reunited with younger ones, boys sat with girls, old friends together and new friends together, smiling and sharing a laugh, reminiscing about when they were young, chatting about just how can you learn to ride a bicycle in all of this crazy city traffic. Not everyone knew each other before that day, but we sat together and ate morning glory soup, watermelon, and grilled fish as a family. In many ways this was just as important.
The following weekend we made a trip to Phnom Penh to visit our university students, the ones who held onto that hope and fought forward. They are steps away from the finish line, only a few years or months before they walk out into the world as young professionals and assert themselves as the best candidate for the job. They are also, of course, not without fears or challenges ahead. So we came together and Sokha led an activity with the group. One by one each student took the ball of string, wrapped it around their finger, and shared what they were struggling with.
“I feel nervous to show up to events where I don’t know anyone” one student said, “I don’t have a problem communicating with my friends, but I feel a lack of communication skills when it comes to networking”, another echoed. Students passed the string across the circle, opening up to each other about a difficulty they were facing until we were one big connected web. And this too, was important.
It doesn’t matter how many interesting Facebook events we send to our students, how many reassurances we offer, how many times we have been amazed by what these University students have overcome to get to where they are. They have to believe it themselves, that they have earned it, that their story is one worth sharing, that they are not alone in their struggles. Sometimes it just makes us want to wring our hands in the air, because we know that student who is feeling nervous to show up at events and we just think, I have known that young woman since she was in Grade 6 and she has more gumption and courage than half the people in this big city. If she can rise above the childhood she came from she can rise above anything. How can she not believe herself?
There was something in the air that night as we laughed together with the Srayang students, something we couldn’t quite put a finger on until we were in Phnom Penh. It was the feeling of belonging. The principal’s son will always be more confident than that student who must bring in the cows every day after school because the principal’s son is sure he belongs in school, not in the fields. The university student who grew up in Phnom Penh and knew what a startup was before they became popular in Cambodia will march right into a discussion about cryptocurrency and not feel out of place. The young woman whose mother received a University degree will grow up reassured by the knowledge that she too will likely receive the same. The young woman whose parents wanted to marry her off to a 36-year-old divorcee instead of allowing her to finish high school will have have spent everyday carefully looking around corners unable to believe that she is really enrolled at the Royal University of Phnom Penh studying her dream subject, free of charge.
It might look a bit different in Cambodia, but haven’t you ever been the one woman in the meeting and heard your voice falter? Have you ever showed up for sport tryouts and been the only one who wasn’t on the team last year? Have you ever been to a dinner party and feel like you have nothing to add to the conversation because you chose a different kind of career?
We all do it. At best we feign confidence and hope that no one sees the pretense, at worst we fall silent or give up. There’s no point in simply telling students to be confident, as if it were something you could just wake up one morning and decide to do. If it were that simple everyone would have figured that thing out by now. We need to find confidence within ourselves. We need to be the ones to find it, to see it, to walk around in it, to touch it, to be in it. We could be the most qualified person at the table and yet, more than any of those qualifications, we need to believe that we belong there.
Our PLF family has increased twenty-eight-hundred fold since the time when Ponheary began funding one student, on her own. There were no University graduates, there was no Koh Ker school. Fast forward twelve years as we sat on the floor of the girls dormitory and that evening, everyone belonged. We’re a big family, and it’s a big world out there, but we’re looking forward to growing that feeling of belonging as much as we can.
Stay tuned for another mentorship field trip next weekend, when the Grade 6 students from Koh Ker and Romchek will have the chance to see their next big step at the Srayang dormitory!