students in Cambodia

Student Stories

McKenna Avery

McKenna Avery: “Sustainability: City to Countryside”

Compared to the outlandish amount of waste the US and China produce on a daily basis, Cambodia does not compare.  However, judging by the constant mix of styrofoam containers, plastic bags, bottles, tires, boxes, etc. lining the streets, it would seem as though this country was right in line with them.  It is common to see waterways hidden under layers of waste and people just dumping their household or business leftovers into the river. Little children and stray dogs can be seen playing with or trying to consume these thrown items on occasion as well.   When I first saw and smelled the presence of utter disregard for disposal, I could not help but ask my internship placement about it. They explained to me how it was a combination between there being no waste management system and the people’s lack of care for this daily affair. It was too easy to say “why don’t people just throw it in a bin at least?”.  As I have been here, I have realized that if I lived here, maybe I would not have too much concern for it either. 

Although it is illegal for Cambodian people to mention it, the government is corrupt and inefficient.  This explains the absence of trash bins, recycle, and dare I say something so extreme as compost. But, it also explains how people are more consumed with thoughts about how they are going to provide for the needs of themselves and their family without any governmental support rather than where their empty wrapper is going to end up.  This is especially prevalent given that 35% of Cambodians live in poverty.


Britney BudimanBritney Budiman: “The West, Wealth, and Work: Foreign Staff in Local NGOs”

While I’m WhatsApp-ing my friends back home about how “cheap” everything is, I am also aware that my afternoon lattes cost twice as much as a full-on meal from a street vendor. Beyond the camaraderie of running into familiar faces at expat-geared events or the admittedly exciting ability to say that I’m interning at an NGO, there are a number of tricky implications of being a long-term tourist that I haven’t quite figured out how to navigate: 

As a Southeast Asian woman myself, I am familiar with the cultural deference this region has towards whiteness and its ideals. Like many countries, there is an obsession with skin-bleaching and “sun protection.” Much of pop culture is modeled after trends that first take place in the West. Medical practices and infrastructure development plans are adopted from those in the Global North.

There is a certain recognition of disparity that is ever present. In my own experience, it is understood from a young age, upheld in educational systems, and manifested into the idea that Western methods are the most progressive, innovative, and best overall. 


Sam Hagos Sam Hagos: People Improvement Organization

Nothing I have ever accomplished can come close to the pride I felt working at the People Improvement Organization (PIO). To be a part of a successful enterprise in a developing country provides one with greater respect for the role of education and NGOs and other like-minded civil society groups.  Despite the attractive qualities of the Cambodian landscape and people, there is a dire need of change. A constant push towards commercial development and bustling tourism industry are the apparent focus of the government. From conversations I have had, this corruption is especially evident in public schools. Students or their parents can often purchase answers to a test or a passing grade. PIO is a different type of school. 

PIO is housed in two buildings in Stung Meanchey, an industrial neighborhood, nestled among landfills and factories. The government has not provided public works in recent years, so it is not uncommon for the dirt roads to flood when it rains. The landfills serve as a source of employment for a few locals who scavenge for recyclable items, sometimes working alongside their children. It is a severe health hazard, mainly because the trash is burned, and the smoke and stench would waft into the classroom.


Maya McHale Maya McHale: “After effects of a Genocide”

Cambodia has a dark and tragic recent history. That was the one thing I was well aware of before going there. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and what ensued was a brutal genocide that would leave the country traumatized. Determined to transform Cambodia into a classless, Marxist society, the Khmer Rouge forced millions of people out of cities to the countryside to do forced agricultural work. Former government officials, intellectuals, and minorities were especially targeted. During this time, Cambodia lost nearly a quarter of its population from starvation, disease, or from being killed by the Khmer Rouge.

What I wasn’t aware of, was how the country has healed and developed since then. I was surprised to find that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is an ex-Khmer Rouge commander. And it’s not a secret, so why is he even allowed to be in power? That’s the thing about this genocide. Only two Khmer Rouge members were ever found guilty for their crimes. The rest of those who committed these horrible crimes are roaming free as if nothing ever happened. After finding this out, anytime I saw someone over the age of 50 walking on the street all I could do was wonder where they were during the genocide. What were they doing? Which side were they on? 


Grace Megginson Grace Megginson: People Improvement Organization

So much of what I have learned from working with children and studying Child Development in the U.S. had to be adjusted when I came to Cambodia. Promoting outdoor play, parent involvement,  special education, daily observations and health checks are just a few things that are not realistic at the People Improvement Organization. There is no space for outdoor play, and there or no time or resources for the others. 

As a relatively idealistic person, these are some of the realities I had to learn quickly. That said, I learned that not all these things are necessary to have an impact on students, but they are privileges. Furthermore, establishing routines, building respect and rapport with the students, and adjusting to the needs and interests of the children are teaching strategies that can be implemented anywhere. The staff and teachers at People Improvement Organization are so creative with the resources they have and go the extra mile for their children everyday,  which is why they have had such a positive impact on the impoverished community they aim to help. 


Bilal MohamedBilal Mohamed: “Development in Phnom Penh”

I am finding it difficult to comprehend why there are so many high-class restaurants and cafes here in Phnom Penh. Taking into account its rapid development and investment opportunities, the lack of comprehension is mostly due to my never experiencing this first-hand. It’s something like gentrification on a country-wide scale. While development definitely has its benefits, it’s important to see it from both perspectives. Who will be on the receiving end? Who’s losing out? Who’s profiting? We’re well aware that it’s normally the locals and native people evicted and pushed into poverty, and that’s very prevalent here in the packed streets of Phnom Penh.

The impression it leaves on me is especially powerful as a foreigner who’s witnessed gentrification take place before my eyes. You may acknowledge the benefits, but the detriment causes greater damage in comparison. Especially here in Southeast Asia, it’s much harsher than where I am from. The contrast, however, is that the locals themselves have yet to mention any complaints. I have had conversations on development and Chinese presence here in Cambodia with locals, and while they acknowledge it, they don’t express any discontent. I only see smiles. Cambodians are always laughing, joking and outwardly happy people. This all despite their country being under foreign economic invasion.


Gabriel Wahl Gabriel Wahl: “The First Two Weeks”

Phnom Penh- One step out of the airport and BOOM! Totally smacked with a stinging heat, a wet sticky residue, and blaring horns. I had to change from shoes to sandals immediately ha-ha! We were quickly greeted by our in-country coordinator, Siyin Lay. In only two weeks, she has become a true friend and confidant to all nine of us. She goes above and beyond her job to make us all feel welcomed, informed, and comfortable while we work, live, and travel in Cambodia. 

I have been to many tropical and subtropical places, but Cambodia’s climate seems to make me sweat like no other. It is really important to stay hydrated here. You can do this by putting hydration tablets in your water (I use NUUN), eating lots of fruits, and drinking a lot of water early in the morning. The weather can be quite nice sometimes, especially after a 10 minute-or-so rain. The clouds tend to part, the humidity is somewhat thwarted, and sometimes there’s a cool breeze. I have also adopted traditional Cambodian cotton shirts as my day to day shirt. It is the most professional and comfortable shirt to wear while working in Cambodia (for me). They sell them for men and women at most of the markets for $4-5.