Each night I dream of Cambodia

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Today I exist in two places at once. Right now I’m in my New Zealand office designing a questionnaire but at the same moment I’m in Cambodia and thinking about one of the scholarship students who lost her brother, through sickness, this week. The tragedy has pulled me back to Bakong and I wish I could be at the school staff meeting today to extend my condolences.

What I experience, a deep sense of living in alternative states is not uncommon for visitors to Cambodia. I’ve met many others whose dreams each night take them to Cambodia and the people they have met there. I’m not alone in my experience, back in 2004, of returning “home” to Cambodia even though I had never before set foot there. What is it about Cambodia that exerts this spell?

I put the presence of Cambodia deep within my subconscious down to the problems and riddles that the nation perplexes us with. How can such gorgeous people have turned in on themselves during the Pol Pot years? How could this have happened?  To what extent did the politics of our western countries play a role in this? To what extent were we complicit in this tragedy?

And today’s problems worry me each night. How can we assist more young Cambodians? What can I do better?

For sure, my feeling of returning home in 2004 came – I’m positive – from growing up with South East Asia imprinted, thanks to the US/Vietnam war, on our TV screens. Those paddy fields and sugar-palms trees were immediately familiar.

But the dreams I harbour most nights? They come from a country that faces new troubles and challenges ahead.  By nature I’m a puzzle solver, and every night I wrestle, always unsuccessfully, with the questions facing modern Cambodia.

Five things I love about Savong School – Cambodia

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Savong and me. Despite appearance, I always look up to Savong because of his dedication to make his dream of free education come true. More than 500 students are enrolled at his school.

 

I’ve commented elsewhere that I feel Savong’s School has never been in better shape. Far from being the fragile NGO that it was in 2005, with everyone learning their way: today it is a place that has stuck to its dreams but offers a lot more than any of us imagined 8 years ago. Here are 5 things I love about the school.

1) The objectives have never changed in 8 years. Back before it was built, Savong dreamed of a school that serve rural students, would be free, would provide language and other skills that would help these students reach their employment potential. Savong has never lost that vision though in that time we have added computer education as well as support for top students to proceed to university. The dream remains the same.

2) The students are enthusiastic and hard working. Most already attend the local Bakong High School which is itself improving year by year. Yet here they are, voluntarily attending additional school because they want to.

3) The staff are positive, skilled and up-skilling themselves.

4) The top students get further support. Top students get a full scholarship that support them through the 4 years (or more) that they need to complete intermediate year followed by a three year Bachelors degree. Our sights are rising higher and higher and these students are making the most of their amazing opportunity.

5) The social interaction at the school is very positive. It starts at the top with the rapport between teachers, but it goes further: in the way that scholarships students give something back to the school – and acting as mentors for younger students. It shows in the way that students congregate before and after class – enjoying the school as a supportive place within their community.

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A most satisfactory visit with Savong.

A few weeks back I admitted to being somewhat apprehensive about this year’s visit to Cambodia. My last journey had not gone particularly well, and the agenda for this year – a set of business meetings to help get better systems and steer the growth of Savong’s NGO appeared to me to be fraught with risk. Put bluntly, I’m expecting Savong – who started the project 9 years ago with no more than a high school education – to adopt a full western-style operating system in order that donors and sponsors can satisfy our own authorities – inland revenue departments for example – about the validity of our gifting.  We live in compliance-driven economies, with huge office towers of graduates devoted to accurate book-keeping. It’s our business culture. How quickly can we ask Cambodian organisations to ramp-up?

Well this journey I’m filled with optimism. For a start, I’ve never seen the school better organised. A couple of original staff members have moved on this last year, but with their replacements has come fresh energy and commitment. Sovannarith, one of the first teachers and widely accepted as the most professional and well trained, is now the senior teacher and in charge of upskilling the others.

Exams are well organised, authorised by the Ministry of Education (a move established some years ago by good supporter Colm Power from Ireland) and close attention is paid to who has passed and who needs to try again. When I visited results were just being posted, and students were flocking, excitedly, to see whether they had passed or missed out. Most of those who missed out had only attended language or computer classes for a few months – so (at least the ones I spoke with) were keen to enrol again for another shot.

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The photo here of Savong’s School was taken on a holiday, so it looks rather empty, but teachers are expecting at least 500 enrolments this new year.

An excellent part of the story at this school is the work put in by scholarship winning students who, after studying at University in the mornings, come back to the school in order to teach or conduct admin duties. They give something back, and they act as mentors for the existing high school students. I’d recommend the practice to any other school.  The enthusiasm of these scholarship winners is palpable (there are more than a dozen – soon to be joined by at least half a dozen more.) The first wave of these scholars will complete their Bachelors degrees a year from now.

When I asked Savong whether his objectives had changed over time he restated the same dream he outlined to me in 2004 exactly nine years earlier: to proved free education in order that poor students can reach their potential.

Along these lines we explored the development of the scholarship idea – assisting students not just through post-high-school university support, but through other career guidance pathways as well. This has been something I’ve been mulling over and was raised also by Amir and Dilshad, the supporters who bankrolled the school library. I met them while on this journey and we visited the library together  – it is a mutli-purpose building with offices, library, computer class-room and meeting/room (come classroom) and to my mind the heart of the school. Amir and Dilshad suggested that a career-guidance focus might be extremely useful not only through sending great students through university, but to support through sponsorship, expertise, good connections – students who wish to train in other vocations. A big part of that is the need to to simply open the eyes of our students to the vast array of career possibilities by bringing in guest speakers, to talk with our rural students and explain what their jobs entail, and how to go about training for that job.

A few years ago almost every student I met wanted to be a “tour guide.”  That made sense in tourist driven Siem Reap. This time when I asked students I found a couple who wished to be engineers, a number who wish to manage their own businesses, and a few who would like to be in a trade – such as electrician or mechanic.

That was the career choice of young Buntheourn whom supporters have sponsored since 2008. (Below)

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He is now almost fully trained as a mechanic, and a year from now will be capable of earning something like $300 a month – unheard of money compared to his parents who struggled on something like $40 per month to support their son. His is one of those great leaps forward we can help local students achieve. Buntheourn is as delightful as ever, by the way, now a young man and completely at ease his profession.

Savong and I had much to talk about. Goals and objectives. Measuring KPIs. Budgeting (12 monthly rather than ad-hoc monthly forecasting) and the need to sharpen up the volunteer experience. A charge will now be imposed for this experience,  to filter out those who rock-up, interrupt the students and all they do is take photos for Facebook without even making a token donation. NGOs in Cambodia are getting mighty wary of these gap-year Facebook volunteers.

However good volunteers are still a necessary part of the story. They help bring expertise, knowledge, encouragement and yes – financial or business resources (good contacts) to the project. As Savong told me at the end of one meeting: “I fully realise how important our supporters are.”

What I found was a school in good heart, and functioning well: a school that is delivering on its objectives.  I’ll discuss in another post the work at the children’s home. Systems-wise it is still a couple of notches behind the school, but making great progress. A day trip with 6 new students to visit their parents 40kms away proved one of the richest experiences I’ve had in my 58 years. Stay posted.

Laptop Day for the Savong School Scholarship Students

Eight of the Savong School scholarship winners – today they each received a new laptop. Their parents were invited to celebrate.

Friday March 15th was a blue-sky day for the latest intake of University Scholarship students at Savong’s School. Under the scholarship scheme these students are supported in four ways:

  1. Enrolment fees are paid for them for four years – intermediate plus three Bachelors years.
  2. A living allowance is granted each month to help them cover their living expenses and for books and stationery. It is important that these students not feel like a financial drag on their families.
  3. Transport into town each day to Angkor University.
  4. A laptop computer – as required by the University.

To be honest, our fundraising had lagged last year, but this last month a very generous supporter made a donation that enabled us to buy a laptop for each of the students, and to cover their living costs and enrolment fees for another year. The gift gives us time to fundraise while providing continuity for the students.

At the Laptop ceremony the students were invited to bring their parents and this was a considerate move by Savong. Family is, or course, an especially important unit in Khmer society, and this was a chance to celebrate the success of these families: proud parents of the student children.

In the photo below is student Chorm Thea, age 22, and his dad on the left, a farmer who has grown up in extremely tough times. Chorm Thea is one of 6 children, and it is likely that once he gets his degree (these students are hard workers) he will then support his brothers and sisters through University as well.

In this fashion, the gift of a scholarship reaps tremendous returns in Cambodia, assisting not only the bright students who shine in the annual exams, but also their families and their villages.

The giving isn’t all one way either. While doing their studies, these students also do some tuition, mentoring and other duties around the school.

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Student Chorm Thea and his dad, on the left, receive a brand new laptop as part of our scholarship commitment.

Laptop Ceremony planned for Scholarship Students

CAMBODIA MAY 09 - LADDER

Today I spoke to Savong and activated a transfer of funds to the school account in Cambodia so that the laptop computers, required of the 9 new scholarship students now they are at university, can be purchased.

Savong was very excited and plans a ceremony to celebrate the laptops, so that the students – and their parents – are duly honoured.  And that honour also goes, of course, to the donor who made the gift possible.

We will post photos as soon as ceremony takes place: we think within a week.

Significant gift assists new Scholarship Students

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When last October’s double intake of scholarship students clashed with my work commitments in New Zealand, I fell short of my fund-raising objectives for 2012, and by a significant amount.

Then, just in time at the end of February this year a very generous gift was sent in which made it possible to honour our commitment to each of the scholarship students: so shortly we will be going to the computer store in Siem Reap and buying each a brand new laptop, with case, with software and – the essential thing in Cambodia’s free and easy software environment: a reputable anti-virus package.

The gift, for $US12,000 will also support these new scholarship students in the months ahead, including their enrolment, next October, for the 2014 year.

A huge thank you to our donor, and to our long-term supporter friend who knows the good story behind the school, and was willing to share it.