Raksmy was a bright student in my critical thinking skills class at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where I teach poor students as a member of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. One day several years ago, Raksmy emailed me to say she was dropping out of my class.
I saw great promise in Raksmy. She was humble, yet showed an uncanny confidence for a young Cambodian woman. I emailed her, “Meet me for lunch.” And she did.
She did not tell me the full story, but she told me enough. Some time ago, her father had an accident and he could no longer drive the bus that had been their source of income. He had also incurred significant debts, about which the rest of the family had been unaware. Raksmy’s parents were moving to Thailand to find work and were leaving Raksmy and her siblings behind to fend for themselves, a tragic decision many desperate Cambodians make. So, Raksmy said she was dropping out of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, where she had a scholarship to study math, so she could work to support her siblings financially.
Raksmy is the sort of student I seek to help in my work. Ultimately, I hope to play a small part in building up the country’s education system, which was destroyed during the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime that exterminated a quarter of the country’s population and 90 percent of its educated people. As part of the faculty at the university, I work to teach young people like Raksmy to think critically, to ask questions and to be reflective about themselves and others. Not only has this ability been identified as a much needed job skill in Cambodia, it is an essential tool for students to learn in order to be intentional about how they want to be in the world and what they want that world to be.
“Don’t worry, teacher,” Raksmy said, “I will still study at IFL in the evenings.” The Institute for Foreign Languages is an expensive private university where students study English and can earn a bachelor’s degree. I was shocked.
“How will you pay for this?” I asked.
“Oh, Mr. Jim is giving me a scholarship,” she said. Alarm bells went off.
Trying to ascertain who this American and part-time village English teacher was, I told Raksmy that I wanted to meet him.
After three hours of sitting with Raksmy and Mr. Jim, I wasn’t much reassured. When he told me that it was good that Raksmy’s teacher was watching after her, I told him, “I’m watching after you.” He understood.
Later I explained to Raksmy that if anything were to happen with this sponsor, she should contact me. Do not make any compromises or do “anything weird” to keep this scholarship, I told her.
As it turned out, Mr. Jim was using Raksmy to translate documents that were part of various questionable business enterprises he was trying to set up in Cambodia. It could have been worse. I rang up a former Maryknoll lay missioner and asked him about giving Raksmy a scholarship. He gave an unqualified “Yes.”
Raksmy graduated from IFL last year after studying diligently and working as an English teacher to support her siblings while her parents worked to pay down their debt. She has brought one then another of her siblings to Phnom Penh, where there are better opportunities for them. Raksmy and I meet every few months and she tells me about what she’s up to. Most touching are her descriptions of how she teaches.
The Cambodian education system is very traditional. The teacher stands in front of the room and says something and the students repeat it. The teacher writes something on the board and the students copy it down in their notebooks and then copy it down again come exam time. Not Raksmy.
She has the students out of their chairs. They do activities. They do role-playing. They learn. I tell Raksmy that’s really cool.
“Teacher,” she says, “I want to teach like you.”
Featured Image: Raksmy, left, and her classmates clown around in a lineup pose for a photo. (M. Montello/Cambodia)