PLF has always been intent on delivering a multitude of workshops to all our students, especially the older ones. There are so many things to know: how to navigate education, how to set goals, how to connect degrees to meaningful employment, how to understand our bodies and manage our health, how to be resilient and solve problems; this list goes on. These skills need to be mastered and when they are not taught at home or at school, students can go off into their life without understanding how things work. The tertiary team works hard to incorporate frequent and robust workshops into the educational experience.
Navigating the realities of COVID in Cambodia as months turn to years, has brought us many many challenges in the Workshop arena and the team has had to color waaaaay outside the lines to find solutions. In the often frustrating process of doing that, we’re finding some silver linings that will greatly enhance the reach of the program when school begins again.
These wins have been hard-won and we’d like to share them with you.
There were many challenges rolled out before us as we began adapting our highly curated library of workshop collateral to something that could be delivered virtually. When I say “we” I mean Los Vannak who, just before COVID, took over management of workshops/mentorship for the Tertiary team.
The task to rebuild this massive curriculum for virtual delivery was a massive task and Vannak slayed it. By her estimation, about half the curriculum could be delivered by zoom without a loss of impact on the topic at hand. Not all, but some of those could easily be recorded and uploaded to our YouTube Channel for students to watch anytime, and are ideal for students with poor bandwidth as youtube videos can be buffered and don’t require near the Mbps as Zoom. She’s knocking all that out. Suddenly having a large part of our workshop curriculum available to students everywhere at any time became Silver Lining #1.
So what about the other half of the curriculum that Vannak just could not adapt? This other half can only be useful if done in person. The modules involve team-building exercises and heartfelt discussions that are difficult/impossible to achieve in a virtual environment. There is often a social work component in many of these kinds of workshops. What to do about those?
Timing is everything and right about the time Vannak was realizing our grade 12 students weren’t going to get some of their most important workshops, PLF made a bold move and started setting up the broadcasting of classes at our closed centers, at closed restaurants, at anywhere we could find a place where a projector will work and has solid 3G signal. Then we gathered very small groups of students together (with a very strong COVID protocol) and let our students who cannot otherwise access classes come and get online.
Why not roll out workshops in those settings? Indeed, why not. Poor Vannak, she’s going to have to give the same workshop over and over and over again to catch everybody, but she will.
With only a few months left in the school year and no sign of school reopening, the first priority is a two-part series on Career Prep for grade 12 students. It’s a hearty mix of complicated topics with break out sessions, the works. Vannak will begin, in the next 2 weeks, giving it in person over and over in very small groups, at our closed Centers, at closed restaurants, wherever, until all our 134 12th graders have taken it all in.
In order to support the level of comms that is necessary to coordinate logistics on this sort of rollout, Vannak and Graham have set up student groups on social media. We’ve got about 80% of our older students in groups so far. Through these channels we can serve up information, course work, tips, invitations to join a multitude of zoom meetings, share resources; this list goes on.
There’s probably nothing short of a global pandemic that would have pushed the envelope this hard and make us get quickly and directly connected to this many students all at once. They are scattered across more than a dozen locations, most of them rural, across two provinces. It required a lot of legwork, shared by the entire PLF staff as well as teachers in the field.
During this time when we did not want to vector too many people from Siem Reap into these rural and remote communities, these student groups were the absolute answer. Our brains are blowing up over how we can further exploit this newfound connection to our older students and them with one another. Silver Linings #2, 3 and 4. There are now more than 350 high school students in these groups.
Pre-COVID, students would gather in-person to hear guest speakers, most of whom were individuals with successful careers in the fields most often chosen by our students entering University. These speakers were inspiring and helped students open their eyes to the possibilities, but often didn’t give the students enough nuts and bolts knowledge of how to navigate the experience.
Vannak took the opportunity to shift gears and started having our own university students host zoom meetings with whichever students at any PLF location has an interest in the major of the guest speaker. This has been BY FAR a more impactful series for both the audience and the speaker. New mentorship networks are being formed as students get clear first hand knowledge from people who are “just like them” about how to prepare for and pull off a specific University degree. Much of the audience knows these speakers personally from other mentorship projects and they trust them. They aren’t afraid to ask “dumb questions”. It’s been amazing to watch as it organically grows its own legs. Silver lining #5 and hats off to Vannak for tipping “Guest Speakers” on its ear.
Silver lining #6. Some Uni students whose majors are in math and science are now networked with students who are struggling through advanced math and science classes at high school. This could easily continue when school reopens.
Meanwhile, we’re discovering more than we’d have imagined there was to learn about the digital divide in Cambodia. The way the already disenfranchised are suddenly cut off from their education through this process is alarming. Once again there’s been no thought given to those who reside in the wildest parts of Cambodia. Devices aren’t much of a problem. You can actually get a functional smartphone for about $50 in Cambodia, but students living even a half-hour commute to Siem Reap can’t get enough bandwidth to join a class. Other students, further out, can’t even get a signal a lot of the time. The government, in the last 18 months this has been going on, could have easily negotiated with cell phone companies to put in some towers in remote areas. But no, all attention has been paid only to urban centers where those who are not disenfranchised most often reside.
PLF doesn’t accept this. While we’re offering up solutions for disconnected students to connect to their government classes, Vannak will be squeezing herself into those gatherings to get her workshops laid down.
Silver Lining #7 is Vannak.
Imagine moving from being the helper to being the leader of a big PLF Project that encompasses Workshops, Career Counseling and Mentorship, and then in your first months into the role you are faced with all this. Now imagine the shoes you’re left to fill are huge, previously worn by Sokha, who built this program and perfected it for us over a seven-year span. What a powerhouse Vannak had to become and will be henceforth. Nothing short of this fire would have shaped her into what she now is.
Vannak’s work reminds us all that every sacrifice will produce a reward. Every struggle will edify our character. Every challenge will demand we learn something new.
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