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Vannak, Workshop Team Leader & Student Counsellor

I had to drop out of school when I was in Grade 7 because the Secondary School was too far from home. My father said to me “I know that you really want to continue school, but we are far away, so you cannot, maybe in the next life you will be born in the town, so it will be easy for you to attend school.” 

So I had to stay in the village. I help my family in the rice fields, and I started an English class for the younger kids, but all the time I am thinking about school. And then one thing that really motivated me, one teacher at my old school said to me “Okay, so you stop studying, waiting to get married, that’s it, that is your life.”

Those words really killed me, like really hit me hard. All I’m thinking is I need to do something different, I cannot stay here, I know how to plant the rice, harvest, I know all that, so there is nothing for me to learn here.

I started talking to my family everyday about going back to school. I know they all became sick of me. I am the 6th of 7 siblings and I am the first one to want to continue studying. So it is a new thing for them! But my father can see I am determined. Luckily he thought about his brother who live in KomPong Thom province, and he let me study there. 

My uncle helped me find enough money to enroll and my goal was to go there and finish Grade 9 only and not High School. But Siem Reap City is my main goal, there are better schools and plenty of foreign language classes there. So after I completed Grade 9 and 10 in Kompong Thom, I began to transfer my documents to Siem Reap. But it cost $150 for the school transfer. So I came to Siem Reap, stayed with my friend in her room, and worked in an Indian restaurant 3 months before I had enough money to start school again. 

Finally, I could start Grade 11 at Angkor High School. Even so, I still keep working. I study in the morning and work in an Indian restaurant every day from 1pm to 1am. It’s a really crazy time for me.  Especially a few months later, my friend needed to get married, and I had to move out, so I just asked my classmates one by one if anyone could help me, because I’m difficult to stay in Siem Reap now. One friend said I could stay with her, she was living in a 3×4 meters garden house of her uncle with some other classmates. It wasn’t even really a house, just cement ledges for beds like a dormitory! But she accepted me to live with her, and it was enough.

And this is the first time I hear the name PLF. My other friend Hoeurng was a PLF student and he said ‘hey don’t give up, we can find something’ and he recommended me to come to ask PLF for help. 

I didn’t realize it then, but I was PLF’s first walk-in student. Lori asked me a few things like where I stay, where I study, and what do I want help with? I can answer a bit because I know a bit of English, and I think, wow PLF they are so nice! I said I want help to study English and extra classes for Grade 12. 

Vannak enrolling in Grade 12 on opening day

So then with PLF support, finally, I have everything I need to finish Grade 12 and just focus on school. I was 21 years old by that time – what a long journey! And even more, I also got a scholarship from them to study TESOL at university – the first in my family to finish high school and go to university.

Even though I made my parents so crazy, they are very proud of me now. You know, my father is always helping people in the village, he can read and he understands a lot. I see how he helps others. And for me, as soon as I got support from PLF, I started to help a friend come to stay with me so she could continue in school, and also my niece from the village. 

Eventually when I was at university and working part-time I rented a separate room for us, and more came from the village. It became known as the mini-dorm! Kao Ay, then my brothers, other cousins … I had so many staying with me that PLF put me on the food bank! I think maybe eight, nine in total I helped. You know, I can say I was a bit popular in my village at that time!

Why did I do that? Because I cannot leave them. If they stay in the village, they drop out. So they stay with me and I want them to feel comfortable. But I also always tell them, okay, you come here for study only. You don’t need to work yet. Because I work. You don’t have to. 

And for me, I’m very strong, I could study and I worked in the evening too. I know to take care of myself. Nobody will cheat me or scare me. So I can take care of myself, and I can take care of them too. 

After university I worked as a teaching assistant for a short time but I also always shared with Lori that I really want to work in an education NGO and soon PLF asked me to come work here. 

Working as Chey Field Director on opening day

My first job was as Field Director at Chey for 2 years. And then I started to work with Sokha on the workshop side. I didn’t really know anything about workshops and honestly, I never thought that I’m going to get this position today! But that first workshop I joined was about parenting, and wow it was a really great workshop. Like so many things, talking about how being a parent is not easy and how to help them with that, to plan ahead. But also just giving them the freedom to talk and share. It’s such a different way of learning. I talked to Sokha afterwards like wow that was really nice.

After that I was so interested and I really love the different topics. So I started to work with Sokha more, like an assistant trainer, and we worked like that for 2 years. Then when Sokha left I took on responsibility for workshops and then Covid happened straight away! I really felt like, oh my goodness, what can I do now? But I learn to do Zoom and I make calls with the students and connect with them that way. Also in that time, mentorship is starting to get bigger and bigger, so I connected students and workshops together through Zoom. It was a bit difficult at first, but it soon started to work well.

The other thing that really helped the workshops grow was working with Christin, she really helped me a lot and everything started to build up. We really worked on the content, with clear lesson plans, and also divided subjects by grade. We start to do full data tracking, the pre and post test, so we can see clearly how much they learn. And also, for myself, I can understand myself better and assess my own skills, oh, this workshop I need to improve and find more or new strategies to fit in it. Or I love this section, I will keep it in. 

Our workshop program goes from strength to strength with Vannak at the helm, across the grades and into the wider community

So I think it’s really great how it’s grown. I feel really proud, because it’s become such a key program, and it’s good for all students to join and express their opinions, their ideas, build their confidence, and help develop their skills and self-knowledge for the future. 

And this is what I really love about my job – working with students and cheering on the next generation as they make progress. Students who have an education are better able to think, identify who they are, and grow into responsible, independent adults and become great role models for the younger generations who follow.

Ensuring students are heard

To me, education is key because it develops critical thinking, positive thinking, teamwork, connection with others, and the ability to come up with better solutions for life. Education has empowered me to have a great job that I love, that pays well, and that will improve my family’s situation. “Never give up. Maintain honesty in your passion.”

You can meet more of our amazing team and read their stories on the People of PLF page!


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