Navy is an incredibly inspirational woman. She has been almost totally blind since birth, only able to see vague shapes and shadows. Her father, who is blind, left her family 20 years ago to live in a pagoda. Her mother passed away when she was a child. She has three sisters -- one who sees very little and has left school, one whose vision is a bit better than Navy's and studies in the province, and one who has normal vision and works to support the family. Navy and her sisters were helped for many years by a Cambodian organization, but that aid ended years ago.
Yet despite this adversity, Navy graduated high school and is now a second year Psychology major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), maintaining a high grade point average. She studies using braille and has a special device that she can use to write braille, which she uses to take both notes and exams (she then reads what she wrote to her professor). Navy’s phone has special software that speaks the text messages and emails she receives, and she also has special software on the laptop computer EFC purchased for her.
Navy lives at the RUPP dorm, and when it is time to go to EFC’s Sunday leadership and computer classes, a fellow EFC student meets her and they go together to the class. Navy may have trouble seeing, but she is a great listener, which is an important quality as she plans to become a therapist!
Ratha Thabb is an impressive student: not only is she a fourth-year Khmer Literature student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, but also a third-year International Relations student at Pannasastra University. In addition to pursuing her two bachelor’s degrees, Ratha finds time to teach English to private students, teach herself Thai (via YouTube!), and do volunteer work.
Ratha is from Siem Reap province. In 2017, EFC had the pleasure of meeting her mother while in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. Ratha’s parents would like her to be a teacher, so Ratha is planning to take the National Institute of Education (NIE) exam when she graduates. However, Ratha is more interested in working in the Ministry of Information or a non-profit organization. Ratha will have to decide whether to pursue her own dreams or follow the path her family envisions. Whichever path she chooses, her hard work at two universities is sure to lead to a bright future!
Chanthang Chin is a fourth-year Chemistry major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She comes from a large family in the province of Siem Reap, where her parents are farmers.
Chanthang’s ability to try and master new things is impressive. During her first couple years at university, she worked at a café in the University’s Japanese Center. As part of her job, she received free Japanese lessons. When she tried to quit the job because of other commitments, her boss pleaded with her to stay because he liked her so much.
Last year, Chanthang tried something new and worked as an “instructor” at a private university. The students took courses online about biology, anatomy, and embryology, while Chanthang was there to assist the students and answer their questions. It was a great experience and paid very well.
Science is Chanthang's major, but this year she also applied to get into the very competitive Institute of Foreign Languages to get a second degree in English. Chanthang didn’t get in this year, but few do the first time they apply. She is also applying for a scholarship to study in the U.S. Chanthang is not someone to have just Plan A, she is prepared with Plan B and C….
Chanthang wants to be a university professor in the future. Her desire to continue to push herself and learn new things will make her a great educator one day!
Thy (on left) is a much more confident person today, after three years with EFC, and she attributes much of her confidence to her experiences in our program.
Like all EFC students, Thy studied at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). She is lucky to have had dorm space at the nearby dormitory. Thy majored in Khmer Literature and finished her studies in June 2018. Thy also worked part-time at RUPP’s Department of Media and Communication, where she learned a lot while making a modest salary to help support her studies.
Thy excels at languages. In addition to English, which she studied at the highly regarded Australia Centre for Education after finishing the English program at RUPP, she studied Sanskrit and Thai.
Thy is considering getting her Master’s Degree in Education from Thailand, and would like to work at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts or become a teacher. To become a teacher, she will need to pass a very hard exam to qualify to teach in the public schools. Many university students take the exam each year, and only the number of new teachers needed for the upcoming school year pass. Maybe surprisingly, if Thy does not pass the exam she can still teach in private schools. Thy also is considering working with the police system, as she is interested in improving the way it currently works.
Thy has big goals ahead of her – and though her next steps in education are far away from her family’s agricultural life, the EFC community will always be behind her.
Maraen Chhaing (in green), a fourth year Psychology student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), comes from a family of poor farmers. She has two older sisters and one younger brother. She left home to begin studying at RUPP, and lives in a dorm very near to school with other poor students from rural areas.
Maraen has been a stellar student all through her four years. She once earned a GPA of 4.0 and other semesters got very close to a 4.0. This is particularly impressive at RUPP, where grades are much, much lower than at U.S. universities. Maraen is currently doing a thesis for her final year – the top 10% of the fourth year psychology students must write a thesis and she is among them.
In addition to her schoolwork, Maraen has been working in an internship position at the Cambodia Communication Institute. She makes a modest salary, but feels she has learned a lot and she can also use the Institute to do research for her studies.
A Master’s Degree is hopefully on the horizon, but Maraen wants to first get some work experience. She dreams of working with the Ministry of Labor or the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, or becoming a school counselor. Significantly, besides farming, her father also teaches. Perhaps helping others is in her blood?
Liheang Long, a fourth-year Physics major at Royal University of Phnom Penh graduating in June, is great at time-management – and it’s not because she studies physics. She has an amazing energy, which she relentlessly channels towards her work, her family and her friends.
Throughout university, Liheang has tutored children from wealthy families to earn money that she sends back to her family. This year, she is also working as a Physics “instructor” at a private university. Her students learn science online and Liheang is there to help and answer questions, which gives her experience and also pays quite well.
Making money is necessary for Liheang. Her parents are farmers living far from Phnom Penh, and she has two brothers and two sisters. Liheang’s father has been sick for years and cannot work much, so Liheang helps support her family. Liheang has an incredibly busy weekly schedule with classes and 17 hours of teaching, but she also finds time to look for opportunities for other students, like when she recently found instructor jobs for two fellow students. She has great consideration for others and we are lucky to have her among our EFC students.
Through the university where she teaches, Liheang made a connection with a “medical physicist.” The term was new to us, but medical physics is the application of physics concepts, theories and methods to healthcare. The physicist Liheang met is considering sending her to Italy to get a specialized Master’s Degree that would make her only the second medical physicist in Cambodia! It would be an incredible chance for Liheang, but if it does not happen she has several other plans: to apply for a job with the Ministry of Energy, to pursue a Master’s in Physics in Cambodia, or to apply for an exchange program in Korea, Japan or Germany.
Here’s to the journey ahead!
"Now I am an independent person and I can stand alone."
This statement speaks for itself, like the young woman who declared it, a soon-to-be Education First Cambodia (EFC) graduate, has learned to do. Its context, however, adds power. As Kong Chanty’s words imply, women, unlike men, are taught to be dependent. Cambodian men have always been allowed academic and career goals, while women are traditionally relegated to domestic roles. This gender inequality is reflected on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index (GII): Cambodia ranks towards the bottom, 112th amongst the 157 countries (UNDP, 2016, p. 208). Even women who do set out on an academic path are constrained by culture, tradition and family pressure (Thon et al. in Maxwell et al).
Yet recent governmental policies have signaled a shift. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was ratified in 1992, women were recognized as ‘the backbone of the economy and society’ in 2008, and in same year the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) developed its third five-year strategic plan, for the first time including a focus on ‘education of women and girls, attitudes and behavior change’ (Maxwell et al). Critics assess these policies as nominal, but EFC is one of the NGOs bringing them to life.
EFC fights the poverty and antiquated gender norms that constrain even the brightest young Cambodian women by nurturing a tight-knit and encompassing scholastic community. EFC now supports 30 exceedingly bright, extremely poor young women at university, and they are excelling. All of its Women Scholars have good grades, much-improved English and computer skills, and greatly improved self-confidence, critical thinking and presentation skills. Some have excelled even more.
One such student is Phidor. Both of Phidor’s parents are subsistence rice farmers who live a world away from Phnom Penh but somehow paid for Phidor and her three siblings to study while they were young. Exceedingly bright, Phidor managed to make her way to Cambodia’s top public university as an Environmental Science major. Now in her final year, Phidor maintains a 3.6 grade point average at a university where the grading is such that most are happy with a 2.0. Phidor has excelled in her Environmental Science and English studies, and even more impressive, she was selected to travel to Japan for a program on biodiversity.
Phidor is one of several EFC students who applied this year for an extremely competitive scholarship offered by SHE-CAN, which each year selects a few female Cambodian students for a four-year full scholarship to a U.S. college. Applying to SHE-CAN is a difficult and rigorous process, involving a written application and then five rounds of interviews and presentations. Some of EFC’s students were selected for interviews and made it through the first two rounds. But Phidor made it through all five rounds, with her fifth round involving a presentation on the topic of global overpopulation to 30 people. In order to study in the U.S., Phidor must get a high score on the International English Language Test and the SATs, plus do a community service project, all before June and all while she is also working on her senior thesis.
Clearly Phidor has big goals ahead, but she has already accomplished a lot – and the EFC community has helped her do so. Studying in the US would be incredible; it would expand Phidor’s studies as well as the perspectives and goals of her classmates by demonstrating the good that can come from striving. EFC’s job is to support young Cambodian women, but there’s nothing more powerful than young women supporting other young women. Independence through a healthy dependence – EFC’s definition of collective.
How to spread this understanding throughout the country? To improve Cambodia’s ranking on the Gender Inequality Index? Maybe an EFC student will figure out how…
TW Maxwell, Sokhany Nget, Kunthy Am, Leakhna Peou & Songly You (2015)
Becoming and being academic women in Cambodia: Cultural and other
understandings, Cogent Education, 2:1, DOI: 10.1080/2331186X.2015.1042215
United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2016: Human
Development for Everyone (8 March 2018), available from