Hannah’s final reflection

It’s been five years since I first set foot in the PLF office as a university student on a study abroad program. I will never forget those first few days when Ponheary shared her story of growing up under the Khmer Rouge with us, and when Lori scared the bejeesus out of me and my classmates by asking us to consider what else we could have done with the ~$5k costs associated with our being there. Both were full-on privilege confronting moments and I will never forget sheepishly hiding my newly purchased TOM’s shoes immediately afterward. Five years later and I am still learning about how to carry my privilege with me instead of tucking it away in my suitcase. I will save those very many blog posts for another time, but for right now I want to note that it was an absolute blessing to be asked on Day 1 to question my role here. Asking these difficult questions may be uncomfortable, but they are absolutely essential to eliciting real and meaningful change. 

I think if I had to pin the nail on one thing I am so proud to look back on, it would be the massive steps forward we have made in transferring the ownership of our programs to the hands of our teachers. 

In my time at PLF, we stood with Teacher Ka’oun as he leapt from learning a pilot curriculum on his first ever computer to taking up the helm of a full year science program and leading his ever-growing group of curious 6th graders. We scoured Siem Reap town for a Cambodian ukulele teacher who could make the commute out to Banteay Srey, we hired Teacher Saron, and so the ukulele program came to be. We trained Teacher Sothy and Ka’oun to play chess so that they could organize daily chess club at Chey and Khnar programs. We coached Librarian Sareng on interactive reading techniques and four months later she trained Teacher Chenda, who is gearing up to lead the new public library at KVLC. Two years ago Saveth and I spent months refining the media program into a shape that he could hold on his own and I dropped by last week to find him on the heels of an entire classroom of students passing the final exam last term. He showed me his new lesson plans for Lego, he talked about why the program is important to him, and when he asked his students the same question they all had a clear answer about how the skills they were learning in Lego would benefit their future. 

Many of you have stood with us on the ground floor of these ideas, and your solidarity is not lost on me. But what I really want to shine a light on lies at the heart of the above accomplishments: sustainability. We have transformed our programs into those that no longer rest on the need for volunteers. Programs run by Cambodians for Cambodians. Programs that volunteers can continue to bring fresh ideas to but at the end of the day are programs that are truly locally led and operated. 

Another exceptional moment in my mind has been the successful establishment of the mentorship program. I now see that program held in the hands of every student and guest speaker who shared their story. Not only did they claim ownership of the program itself, they claimed their place in their communities as leaders, as agents of change, as older sisters and brothers, and as role models for the next generation. They claimed the power of their own story, and to me this power is second to nothing. 

As I move forward from PLF I feel deeply grateful for all that I have learned during my time here, but if everyone who engages with our programs could hear only one thing I hope it would be this: gratitude doesn’t change anything. Feeling grateful for what you have means nothing unless you are taking action against global inequality and the systems that create it. Dig in, own yourself and your mistakes, do better, and keep moving. We’re all in this thing together, and you better believe that I will be looking for you in the line when it comes time to pull. 

Until then,