It is a requirement of all Travel Aid volunteers to make a donation of around £500 per person to their charity of choice. So, many months before touching down on Cambodian soil and facing the realities of an education system in need, we began the arduous and often challenging task of fundraising. Back then, our combined target of £4,500 was just a number at the end of a very long road. Each team racked their brains for ways to win over the hearts- and pockets- of our notoriously tight fellow students, and over the months which followed we have painstakingly watched our JustGiving totalisers inch upwards to meet our goal. So, cakes were baked, Krispy Kremes and Pimms were sold, cars were washed, and we discovered that some people will pay anything for a glowstick in the pub on a Friday night. The donations started rolling in, and thanks to the generosity of our families, friends and local organisations we were able to step on the plane content in the knowledge that our first goal had been met.
One thing that I don’t think any of us had really considered though was the impact our donation could make. The children and young people at JWOC go there because they need the services it provides. Many of them are from very low income families who cannot even afford the small costs of state schooling, so the free classes and wide range of facilities open doors of opportunity they could not otherwise imagine. Over the course of our time at JWOC, we have got to know a fraction of the students who benefit from the school’s resources- perhaps best of all, our Khmer partners; high school students who have just completed their final exams. In September our nine new friends will be told whether or not they have been awarded one of the 17 university scholarships the school offers. My partner, Raksa dreams of studying medicine at university, but despite her family’s recent begrudging approval for her to continue her studies, she simply does not have the money to support herself through university. She feels that the internship has given her the confidence to apply for the scholarship, something with which Reak Smey, another of the interns, agrees; “the internship has given me a chance to practice my English- English skills are one of the most important factors in getting the scholarships.” But despite this apparent ‘leg up’ in the JWOC family, neither Raksa nor Reak Smey can guarantee that they will be some of the lucky few to receive a scholarship. Already, the school has given out over 200 application forms and with the closing date over a month away, they are expecting hundreds more.
Competition for places is only one hurdle in their paths to a more prosperous future. Currently, the corrupt and ruthless education system relies largely on bribery and wealth, and as a result, Reak Smey notes, ‘the rich will stay rich and the poor will stay poor’. The JWOC scholarships offer students a lifeline out of a poverty trap, giving them the chance to improve the lives of their families and build a fairer society around them.
Working so closely together with our Khmer partners- building friendships alongside the summer camp project- has left us in no doubt as to where we want our donation to end up. For the lucky few who will receive a JWOC scholarship, their fees for the duration of their time at university, a mere $2000, will be provided for. Not only that, but the experiences they gain from their voluntary hours at the school- whether it be educating villagers in health care, working tightly with the microfinance project or taking on teaching roles in the classroom or the IT lab- will be invaluable to their CVs, and strengthen the relationship between the community and the education system. Cambodia is a growing country, and if our donation can give a few more students like Raksa, Reak Smey and the other high school interns the chance at a brighter future, we’ll know that the summer of 2011 will have been one well spent.