PLF University Scholar Romdul’s story of finding her way from the village to the big city.
“It’s difficult to pick one story from my childhood to share, there are so many. I’m the child of a difficult life. My family is poor, and when I was young my mom left to find work in Thailand. So I grew up living with my grandmother and my siblings. My mother didn’t take care of me at that time, it was up to my grandmother to take care of us.
When I started school I was still living in Sotnikum District, Siem Reap Province. Sotnikum is far away from the city, it’s an area that hasn’t grown or developed much. As a child I was poor, and when I went to school I had to go on my own. Most students had parents who brought them to school every morning, but for me I had to walk by myself to school. At that time, I didn’t understand why I had to go to school – what was the purpose? But I knew that I wanted to learn.
Even though I was young and unsure about school, I did well in my classes. I remember bringing my results back home to show my grandmother and she asked me: “Why did you bring these scores for me? Why is your score so low” She thought that first and second were too low, why didn’t I get a higher number like 30? I wondered this too, neither of us understood about class rank instead of class score. But I kept with it, I kept studying.
Actually when I was young I was very quiet, I didn’t talk to others much. I liked to be by myself, and I didn’t really have friends until I was in Grade 6. Because I was strong in the class, I became close with students who were also clever. I began to feel like I wasn’t alone anymore.
When I was in Grade 5 and mostly by myself I felt like the world was so small, but when I moved on to Grade 6 I had more friends and my world expanded. I loved discussing things with my friends. We always talked about how everyone was doing in school and wondered – what is the purpose of education? Study hard for what? Finally when I graduated Grade 6, I was at the top of my class.
After graduating from Grade 6, I went to Chansar Secondary School and had to make new friends all over again. There was only one secondary school in that area, so a lot students came from very far away, different communes even. I felt nervous and afraid, especially about how I would compare to others in the classroom. I’m very competitive, and I didn’t want to lose to others. I wasn’t sure who was clever and who wasn’t. It was difficult, and I was worried that all of these new students were smarter than me. I hated this idea that others were smarter than me.
But I knew I didn’t want to give up my studies, so me and my three close friends would always discuss the answers together and support each other. If I struggled with math, I would ask my friends to help me in that subject. But if I was strong in khmer language, I would help them in return. At the end Grade 9, our hard work paid off. Our scores were very high.
At that time my Grandmother told me that I should stop studying. She said that there’s no point for young women to get a high education, because she still believed in the traditional way of thinking. The old generation always says that women are like the cooking pot, always kept in the corner of the kitchen and unable to move. Even if a woman has a high education, when she gets married she becomes a wife, she must take care of her family and herhomes. I understood her feeling but I wanted to continue even if she told me that she couldn’t support me. So I went to apply for a scholarship to continue my studies.
I was so so happy, when the principal came to my house to tell me that I was accepted to the scholarship program and could continue on to High School in Siem Reap city. I wanted to go so badly, it was my dream for a long time. I wanted to learn about the city, what was it like?
But before I left for Siem Reap the people in my village said that girls who go far away from home are no good. Moving to Siem Reap meant that I wouldn’t know who was around me anymore, maybe I would make friends with the wrong people, maybe I would follow them on the wrong path. What if I wasn’t successful? What if I couldn’t graduate? The people in my village they really like to put young women in the corner, not allow them to go far. But I had one thought. If I don’t try it, how will I know? I thought about this. I am so young, so small, I didn’t know much about myself at all but I knew I wanted to learn.
When Nimol first brought me to Siem Reap I went into the PLF office and I was so happy because I had never seen so many new and strange things. I was in THE city, the one I had heard so much about.
The dorm in Siem Reap, it was like a real home. It had two floors, rooms for everyone. I loved it. Especially, we could study a lot of different subjects, we could study together, we had enough school supplies, we had our own household materials, we had everything. I was so happy. I was so so happy. When we were there we didn’t have to focus so much on household chores, we could focus on our school work. We even had a cook to help us prepare meals. I felt like I was a princess! At my childhood home I never had anyone take care of me like that. PLF took me to check my blood, get vaccinated, and make sure I had good health. I even had insurance! A bicycle! It was so much better than before. The house was beautiful, I could study computer and English without even having to leave the house!
After two years I felt close with the other girls there like they were my sisters. We joined so many workshops together, so many community events. These really improved my confidence. I felt like yeah I’m a woman, but I can do anything. I can do it just like them. The people in my village were wrong about me. If we don’t try, we won’t know. I always thought about this. I wasn’t scared of Siem Reap anymore, and I was ready to go somewhere new.
Two years felt like so long when I was in school, but when I was with my friends the time went by so quickly. Finally it was time for the national Grade 12 final exam. I knew that the students who got a good result could go on to study in Phnom Penh, and I was so worried that maybe I wouldn’t pass. What would my parents think? What would the people in my village think? Would they allow me to keep going? I knew in my heart that I wanted to go to Phnom Penh, not just stay in Siem Reap.
When I got the scholarship, I was given a computer and a monthly stipend for living expenses. I was SO excited when I got this news that I could go to live in Phnom Penh. The people in my village were so surprised that I was selected They were surprised that a student from the rural area could succeed and go to live in the big city. They were happy and proud to see that even if we are from a poor family we can still be clever. No one else had succeeded like me. Every single person at my high school failed their final exam, except me. I was so proud of myself. Before everyone looked down on me, but now they started to look up to me.
Even though they looked up to me, they had a lot to say about Phnom Penh. They worried that there’s too much trash, thieves everywhere, that just because I was a good student in Siem Reap didn’t mean I would be successful in Phnom Penh. Maybe I wouldn’t graduate. “You are from a poor family,” they said, “you don’t have a lot of things in your life.” They didn’t know if I would be able to graduate or not.
At first I didn’t dare to go anywhere outside in Phnom Penh, because it’s not like Siem Reap. The only things I knew were the way to school and the way back home. Go to school, come back home, that was it. I felt really homesick at that time, I wanted to cry. When I called my mom she told me, “You chose your own path. I don’t have anything to give you.” She wished me good luck with my studies, she wished I would graduate. “The path that you are walking on,” she said, “you have to find the way yourself. You’re on your own. It doesn’t matter what you become, you will always be my daughter.”
I understood my mother’s words clearly, because she sounded just as scared as me. But I still had my goal. She doesn’t have any land or expensive things to give me, so I have only my knowledge to help me. Every decision I make, my mom has always supported me, but I wonder why she trusts me so much. If one day I go the wrong way, would would she think? But she always said that she believes in me, that the most important thing is the find the way that is best for me.
Whenever I meet a problem, I always remember that this path is the one I chose. So I have to keep going. My mom told that me that if I want to give up, look at her. Look at the work she is doing, does she have the same knowledge that I do? Look at the villagers, what will they think?
These are the words that keep my going, they push me to not give up. I still think of them today in my university studies. I am the first student from PLF to study social work. In the future, we don’t know what problems we will face, or how we can help society. In my studies I see people who come from an even more difficult background than me, and I now feel that the problems I faced were small. How can I give up when others don’t even have the chance to study, don’t have the same things that I do? When I graduate from University, I will go back to help my community. I want to go back to Siem Reap to help the people in my village and all the others in my community who struggle.
Looking back on my life, I think it doesn’t matter if I’m short, small, poor, whatever. My goal is to find my own success. I want to say to all of the other girls out there in the world that you can do it. You are stronger than those who have more than you. Don’t be afraid of the problems you have because you are strong. You can walk your own path. The thing that you want to do, go out and do it and don’t be afraid to try because you won’t know yourself until you do. I hope to see all of the girls in the world working hard and getting a high education just like me.”
Romdul graduated from Angkor High School in 2018 and is currently in her first year at the Royal University of Phnom Penh studying social work. This article was adapted and translated into English from an original interview in Khmer language.
To read more about our university scholarship program, click here!