If ever there was a pandemic silver lining, the growth and momentum of our mentorship program is it. And the more our uni students take ownership of this initiative, the deeper and wider and stronger it becomes under their direction.
We’ve always recognised the importance of role models in our students’ journeys – especially those from remote and rural areas. Our work in creating educational pathways out of the forests and fields of Cambodia’s poorest provinces ensured we became very well acquainted with the challenges in accessing higher education. Quite frankly, the early paths were poorly lit, rarely trodden, and void of signposts.
The first students who pushed through these many barriers were the exception among their peers, somehow having found the determination to move forward, despite having few in their community to guide them. If you’re a Cambodian kid growing up in a rural village, you may be aware of the possibilities that higher education can bring, you may even have heard about university. But if you can’t see it, you can’t become it … Your daily surroundings, the community you grow up in, the overwhelming majority, will always be more visible than the exception.
As the first PLF students made their way to university in 2017, our mentorship program naturally started to take shape, evolving around three key components:
- inviting our uni scholars to come back to their communities to share their stories – with hopeful students of course, but also with teachers, families and community members
- hosting guest speaker events with successful change-makers in the community
- and leading field trips to secondary schools, universities, workplaces, and career fairs to show just how many potential pathways there were
The mentorship program began to shine a light on the way forward for others, fostering a culture of leadership and inclusion and building a community of positive role models. At the end of its pilot year, one of our high school students explained it in a nutshell: “Now I know clearly. If they can do it, so can I.”
Then along came COVID.
Under the extreme challenges that the pandemic brought, mentorship found a whole new direction. With schools and universities closing for pretty much all of 2020 and 2021, students returned to their villages and were cut off from access to lessons or study resources.
Our uni students quickly mobilized and fully exploited digital tools and social media during that period – setting up systems to assist Grade 12 students studying for the exam; organizing small study groups via zoom; answering advanced study questions in chat groups; as well as in-person study sessions in their villages where possible.
We tapped into this zeal which enabled us to urgently finalize and roll out our fledgling eLearning program that was in development at that time. Our uni volunteers were absolutely essential in bringing this initiative to fruition, holding sessions in their villages, in closed-down restaurants … wherever they could to ensure that students remained connected, online, and as on track with their studies as possible.
As an active practice, mentorship absolutely grew legs during COVID, and became a force of its own. This growth was 100% organic and completely student-led. One legacy from that time is that some of our Siem Reap university students have become paid interns, leading what are now permanent eLearning programs in rural areas.
And that momentum continues to build!
Now with all restrictions lifted, students have fully seized the program and are enthusiastically running with it. They are organizing frequent in-person sessions to inspire their younger peers; as well as sharing events amongst themselves to discuss all things uni.
The meeting topics are devised by the students themselves – with some final guidance from our workshop leader Vannak if needed. These range from the academic: how to prepare for Grade 12 exams; how to choose the right university major; how to prepare for university life – to personal development: time management; goal setting; the benefits of collaboration and teamwork.
The sessions are scheduled and advertised via social media, currently reaching some 500 students across Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
The mentors also regularly join our tertiary team on field trips to rural areas, where we are tackling high dropout rates amongst middle schoolers. Their presence is invaluable, as they encourage students to focus on their studies, set their sights on continuing high school, and begin the important preparation for the Grade 9 exam. Having traveled this pathway themselves, the mentors are great listeners, understanding all too well the challenges the younger students face. There are always many questions asked, as light bulbs switch on for middle schoolers beginning to visualize what a future that includes high school and university might look like.
This momentum culminated last month in our biggest mentorship event yet, as the mentors proposed to take their sharing sessions on the road to meet the needs of rural students at our learning center in Knar. They invited all middle and high school students, devising carefully planned topics adapted to each grade:
- ‘Developing study habits’ for Grade 7
- ‘The value of education’ for Grade 8
- ‘Setting goals to make your dream come true’ for Grade 9
- ‘Build your future through education’ for Grades 10 – 12
Through discussion and fun activities, the event was hugely inspiring for participants. As one Grade 9 student commented:
“The benefit I have gotten from university students’ sharing is about goal setting. To set goals, we need to have more than one. That is, if we are unable to achieve the first goal, we can move on to the second, third, and so on. I always wonder what my future will look like and whether I can achieve it or not. When university students come to KVLC and share their goals, it makes me happy and I see that it’s possible for me too. It has changed my thinking.”
And it’s a win-win situation, with the benefit going both ways; by fully embracing the concepts of mentorship and community work, our uni students find that “the best way to learn, is to teach”. As summed up by one of our mentors, Sreyneang:
“When you come from a farming family, no one advises you or encourages you about school. But with encouragement from PLF, I graduated grade 12 and it made me feel so strong. And I knew I didn’t want to go back to the village. I was sure I was clever enough to continue studying. I was one of the first PLF students to go to university. Now I volunteer in PLF’s mentorship program, speaking to students about their futures and about leadership, because it’s great to help them and share about my challenges and achievements. I’m very happy to do it, because I know that the younger generation benefits from seeing role models, people like them that come from the same background.”
“I am so happy to be a part of this growing program. Cambodia is a developing country, and it needs to have a young generation with growing knowledge to help change the country in a positive way.”
We couldn’t agree more Sreyneang. And with such committed mentors giving back to their communities, sharing their knowledge and igniting young imaginations, the possibilities are endless!
Want to walk alongside students in their journeys, but not sure how?
For as little as $10 a month, you could contribute to the ongoing education of our students. $120 goes a long way in Cambodia: that’s 5 village children on the road to education, with access to school and clean drinking water for half a year. Or a million other things, all of which coalesce into the tools needed for life to change for the better!
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