I want to tell you three stories.
The first story is about Chamnan. She was the top of her class all the way through Secondary School in Srayang, and is now studying in Grade 10 in Siem Reap. She is the person that all of her peers look to when they are unsure, the one that they look to as a leader, the one who sits in the front of the class, the one who just knows. One day, Sam Oun, a PLF University student came to speak to the students at the Srayang Dormitory about his story, the challenges he faced on the way to university, and his university experience. Upon finishing speaking, he asked if any one had any questions. Everyone looked to Chamnan. And she raised her hand, stood up, and said plainly; “I don’t even know the first thing about University. I have never seen one, and you are the first person I have met who has studied at that level. How can I even know what to ask?”
The second story is about Channy. She comes from an area where the elders in her community’s views on education were “I’ll allow it, but I won’t support it”. There was no school in Koh Ker Village until 2004, and until that time the highest level of education in her village was held by a woman with a Grade 3 education. That woman, Sieng Ry, was her first teacher. Channy graduated from High School this past year and is now a first-year law student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is the first person in her village to ever graduate from High School, and the first to enroll in University. But when you ask her who her role models are, she will pause. “I was lucky to have people like Sieng Ry in my life to push me forward, but who could I look to? I had to look to myself.”
The third story is about Sokha, who did not have access to education until she was 13 years old. She walked 4km to school everyday through the forest to study in Primary School, and when she was 19 years old she put herself in an orphanage in the city so that she could continue on to study in the nearest Secondary School. The villagers in her community strongly disapproved of a young woman living away from her family, believing that a woman should be a wife, not a student. Sokha graduated High School when she was 26 years old, continued on to get a Diploma in English Language, and is now a Social Worker and Student Counselor for PLF. And when you ask what motivated her to fight for her future, she will tell you; “I saw all of the young women in my village get married at a young age and become housemothers for the rest of their lives. I knew I didn’t want that, so I had to work hard to get an education to change my future.”
This year I am raising money to build a mentorship program, which will include field trips to secondary schools, high schools, universities, workplaces, and career fairs as well as guest speaker events with university students, successful businessmen and women, and other leaders/change-makers in the community. A program to shine a light on the path forward, to foster a culture of leadership and inclusion, to build a community of positive role models, and to open eyes to just how many paths there are to choose from.
A program for Chamnan, who has all of the tools she needs to step forward but is not sure what the path looks like. For Channy, who led the way, but had no one to guide her. For Sokha, who could see only who she did not want to become, not who she wanted to be.