About Student Chats:
We know how inspiring our Students are and we thought it was about time you, our friends and donors, could get to know them for yourselves. Throughout this series, you will hear directly from the students about their lives, their struggles, their dreams, and passions.
3rd year studying at University of Health and Science, Medicine
Can you start by telling us about your life from when you were young until now?
I didn’t come from a rich family, I came from a normal family. My father didn’t really have the opportunity to study, so he resorted to violence very often. My mom, she grows plants and vegetables to support the family. But because my father used violence a lot, my mom decided that I should live with my grandmother instead. She felt that if I stayed with my parents I couldn’t continue my studies because of my father, he was violent and always drinking every night.
So when I moved to live with my grandmother, my grandmother let me study. The only problem was that when I went to live with my grandmother we didn’t have an income. So she taught me how to help her make cakes and I would sell them. When I came back from the market I would give all of my money to my grandmother and she would continue to teach me. If we can make 5000r (~$1.25 USD) per day, she said, then we have enough money for you to study. At that time it cost me 1000r (~$0.25) per day to study*, so if I spent 1000r on school then we would have 4000r left to save for ourselves. If we made more than that, she would show me how to grow vegetables. She always reminded me that if we didn’t have enough money, we could grow morning glory or other cheap herbs to sell. She also taught me how to take care of animals. I learned so much from her. Every morning I would wake up and take the cakes to sell. So that was how we managed to make an income when I lived with her.
My grandmother and grandfather had been divorced for many years, but one day he came to ask my grandmother if he could come back to live with her. When he came to live with us my grandfather also taught me many things, like how to catch fish, frogs, and other small animals that we could also sell at the market to make money. It was difficult to live with him, he was a bit strict. But he wanted the best for us, and he taught me many things. However when it came to my studies, he often thought it was a waste of money. “Just eat your food at home, stay at home” he said.
“When the fruit of the coconut tree falls, it doesn’t fall far from the tree. If your father can’t do it you can’t either, you can’t go far from him.”
When I was in Grade 9 I was very focused on my studies because I wanted to pass the National Outstanding Student Exam. But when the exam day came it didn’t matter how much I studied. I still felt unprepared, because my teacher hadn’t given me the information I needed. I was pretty heart broken. I had studied so much. This was the first time that I studied hard, in Grade 9. When I didn’t pass the exam I started to think again. I remembered that in Grade 12 I would have another chance to stand out if I got an A on the national Grade 12 exam. Because I missed the opportunity in Grade 9. So in Grades 10 and 11 I knew I had to be focused.
Actually in Grades 10 and 11 my scores weren’t that high. But in Grade 12, I felt I had really good teachers and I felt confident that I could get a good score. Turns out I didn’t pass the Grade 12 outstanding student exam either (he laughs). If you want to pass that exam you have to have teachers who teach the right exercises and you have to do research on your own. When I studied at School there weren’t any teachers who could teach to the exam properly. They only taught the government book, that’s it. So it was really difficult to answer the questions on the outstanding student exam because they were different from the government book.
Sometimes I would ask my teachers to let me join their extra classes for free because I didn’t have enough money to pay. In High School you have to take the extra classes if you want to keep up in class. Sometimes I would ask my teacher, “I don’t have money right now, but I want to study.” I knew that if I didn’t ask I wouldn’t have the knowledge I needed. So in order to study, I had to do whatever I could. Maybe they would let me study, and when I asked them they told me it was no problem. They wanted me to study hard so that I could pass the exam. I was happy when I asked the teacher and he agreed because if we don’t have money and we don’t dare to ask for help then we won’t have any knowledge.
Since I was young, I was always passionate about helping others. Once I knew a little bit of English, I asked my teacher if I could help to teach as well. I only knew a little bit, but I wanted to help. Sometimes I used my own money to copy exercises for the class, to help others learn. Now those students are still in Siem Reap, but they’re grown up now. I wanted to help others learn English because in my village most people don’t go to school. I wanted to encourage them to study, to study extra, but the people in my village I think they don’t really like to put value on education.
One day my teacher at English school told me, “Rachhan, you have helped me so much already but I haven’t helped you. Now it is my turn. I will support you with $30 per month, not as a salary, but as money to support your studies.”
When I passed the Grade 12 exam I asked my English teacher if I could stop teaching because I had a different goal in mind – to become a doctor. He asked me, “Why did you decide to become a doctor?”. I told him I wanted to become a doctor because being a doctor meant that I could help people, that a doctor was the person who can help people the most. Because a doctor is the one who tries to fight against death. If I can save someone from death it’s highest merit I can earn. This is the reason that inspired me to study to become a doctor. And one more thing, in the village, most people don’t really know about health or medicine. They don’t know how to treat illness. For example, if there is someone who is sick with a headache they think it’s a problem with their blood. Why do they think this? Because the elders all believe that sore throats, headaches, dizziness, all come from a problem with their blood. So when they have that problem they take a medicine for their blood and they share it with others. Sometimes the problem is that they have low blood sugar or high blood pressure and they take the wrong medicine and it makes them feel crazy. So this problem, if I study medicine, I think that the situation can be different.
Ok wait, so how did you become a PLF student?
I didn’t have enough money to pay for extra classes when I was in Grade 12. I had heard about PLF from my classmates, that they had high school scholarships but I didn’t really know much else. If PLF could help me to enroll in extra classes that would be great for me because at the time I didn’t have enough money to pay. At that time I had to ask my teachers to let me join for free because I only had $30 per month. It was enough to pay for one or two classes but not all because I had to keep some for my grandmother. So if PLF could help me it would be great, I could take all of my extra classes instead of having to choose one or two.
I knew Sororn from my classes at Angkor High School and I asked him if he could help me. And he did, he helped me a lot. He told me to come and meet the PLF staff, even though I had missed the deadline that I should try. Before I went he made sure I had all of my scores printed and my documents prepared so that I could show the PLF staff. When he brought me into the PLF office I first met with Sokha and Graham. I asked them if they could accept me, if they could help to pay for my books. They asked me for my phone number so that I could come back for an interview but at that time, honestly, I had never had my own cell phone. I didn’t know how they could contact me. My grandmother had a phone but I couldn’t remember her phone number, I had never used her phone. My mom’s phone would be difficult to use as well because she was working, busy. So Sororn gave them his phone number, and later he was the one to tell me that I was accepted as a PLF student. I was so happy at this time.
Sororn also told me that PLF would provide me with a new bicycle. At the time my bicycle was nearly broken, it made strange noises when I rode it. But I had to ride it anyways, it was the only way to get to school. Oh my god, I was so happy (he laughs). A new bicycle! I went home to tell my grandmother and she was so happy that I was accepted and that I got a new bicycle. The people in my village always thought there was no point to studying hard, why was the benefit of all that work to ride a broken bicycle? They always said “when the fruit of the coconut tree falls, it doesn’t fall far from the tree. If your father can’t do it you can’t either, you can’t go far from him.”
This always made me feel upset. Maybe my father couldn’t go far, but I felt that I could do it if I studied hard enough. This is the view of the people in my village, they looked down on me.
I became a PLF student in 2015 or 2016, when I was in Grade 12.
Can you tell me about your involvement in the mentorship program with PLF? How do you feel about going back to speak to younger students?
When I go to speak to the younger students in Siem Reap I feel happy. When I was at AHS I joined some workshops to meet students who had gone to study in Phnom Penh and I always thought they were so cool. They had the opportunity to get a good education, and I saw that and I wanted the same for myself. Now when I go back, I am the person who I used to look at when I was in high school myself. Now I am the cool one (he laughs). So I think about, what can I say so that they will listen and feel encouraged to study hard. I think it’s really important to share our experiences with those who are younger than us, because when we are young most of us don’t really know anything yet. Not everyone has the chance to join workshops, etc. Especially in the village, we rarely have the chance to join an event like this. We have our parents, but there are no examples of people with a high level of education. No one is talking about new ideas, only following the old ideas. So when we join workshops like this, we see the people we want to become. So I think it’s important, mentorship.
Do you have any role models?
About my role models – my role model is Beat Richner, the founder of Kantha Bopha Hospital, because my goal is the same as his. I want to help children, I want to help others. Dr. Richner, he came all the way from his country to help Cambodians and especially children. Even though I can’t be as popular as him I can still help others and bring happiness to the community. Happiness doesn’t come from money. The most important thing is that we help as many others as we can and then we will be happy. Happy because we help others.
One of my favorite quotes about this says: “We have two hands. The first hand is for helping ourselves. The second hand is for helping others. If we are happy from helping others, then we should do it, but we have to make sure we also know how to help ourselves, take care of ourselves. We can’t help others until we take care of ourselves first. Then, after we are okay we can help others.
How about the PLF scholarship, do you think it’s important?
I think it’s important. Why? Because after I took the Grade 12 national exam, I had to take the medical school entrance exam as well. They only accept 30 people for scholarship, and I was #44. So what else can I do to get a scholarship? When PLF told me that I was awarded a scholarship from them… oh yeah (he laughs) — I was happy. If PLF didn’t fund my scholarship, I would have to make a different plan. It’s very expensive to study medicine, to buy school supplies, to live in Phnom Penh. I wouldn’t be able to become a doctor if I didn’t have this scholarship.
What about your future, what do you want to become?
In my future, I want to become a surgeon. I know that I want to work at a private hospital but I’m not sure if I want to do general surgery or something more specialized. In Year 4 I have to choose, but I still have two more years so I’m not sure yet. I think that surgeons are better than general doctors because general doctors can prescribe medicine and cure illness but they can’t perform surgery. Surgeons, on the other hand, can do both.