Our group had the opportunity to visit Cambodia as part of a cultural immersion program with West Point’s Center for Conflict and Human Security Studies. Journeys Within organized our trip throughout Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand; however, the central activity in our travels was working with JWOC in Siem Reap. Our group consisted of five West Point cadets, and myself, who is a member of the faculty in West Point’s Social Science Department and Major in the United States Army.
We spent many of our 11 days in Siem Reap working with the children and young adults in several of JWOC’s English language classes. Most of the classes consisted of our group simply having conversations with the various students enrolled in the school. The students were extremely happy to have native speakers to converse with and to learn about our various backgrounds and experiences. In fact, we probably learned as much about Cambodian culture and daily life from these classes as we did from any of the other cultural immersion activities that we were part of our travels. The students and instructors of the classes where all extremely gracious for allowing us to be part of their English classes and working with them was a tremendous amount of fun for our group.
One of the most interesting parts of my experience with JWOC was the numerous interactions we had with their scholarship students. JWOC selects these students from numerous applicants while they are in high school or early years of the college. The program provides funding for college tuition and books for these students in exchange for their service teaching at the JWOC school, working with JWOC’s microfinance project, and JWOC’s clean water project. In addition to getting the necessary labor to help run these other programs, the scholarship students gain important work skills that will help them obtain future employment. Journeys Within Hotel and Tour Company and JWOC have hired several of these scholarship students to stay on as permanent staff and many of the NGOs who are operating in the area have also hired them for their English proficiency and skills learned while serving in the program.
While job skills and education are ultimately the outcome that most scholarship students join the program to obtain, the local community gains something far more important than simply another educated worker or even the actual well or business loan that JWOC provided. These scholarship students serve as invaluable role models for the young children enrolled in JWOC schools and living in the local communities that they reach. Many young people in the local villages know very few educated and successful people who began life under similar circumstances, and these scholarship students show them that life beyond subsistence farming is possible. Cambodian society has almost no interaction between the wealthy and the exceedingly poor citizens, and therefore most young people grow up without knowing many educated adults. It seems that very few paths lead to social mobility in Cambodia, and JWOC’s scholarship program is one of those few avenues. The scholarship program is a critical component to ensuring that both JWOC continues to have a skilled labor pool and ensuring that average Cambodians can have a life beyond their village.
We had several opportunities to work with and talk to these scholarship students throughout our time in Siem Reap. These occasions occurred during both planned interactions with the students and as we worked with them throughout JWOC’s various social programs. These students were very eager to learn about other cultures and life beyond their world in Siem Reap. Most have never traveled beyond their province and none we met had ever left Cambodia. Often times, conversations would lead to how government, schools, businesses, and every day people interact within American society. Honest discussions about their own government rarely occur and mostly they are only exposed to the local version of the news that they received from state owned news outlets. The students seemed eager to hear our opinions of our own country’s successes and failures in subjects like foreign and social policy. More than what we were saying on any particular subject, they were intrigued by our frankness and willingness to disagree with US government’s decisions. Again, many of these college students rarely have the opportunity to have open discussions with educated people or people outside of their immediate communities. These casual discussions were the most fulfilling part of my travels in Cambodia.
All said, JWOC is providing needed community services, leadership opportunities, and free educational services in a country where quality education generally comes only to those with enough money to attend the best private schools. Given time and enough students, those they serve will become the driver of social progress in Siem Reap province. The organization was gracious enough to allow our group of 5 students and myself to be a part of their daily work and for that we are very grateful. Thank you Nicola, Alex, and the multitude of scholarship students who we were able to work with over the past few weeks.