From Cambodia to Bowdoin: Two Unlikely Students Recount Their Journeys to College

Rada Chhorn and Kimsrung Lov

Cambodia exchange students Rada Chhorn and Kimsrung Lov are studying at Bowdoin this year

As young girls growing up in Cambodia’s countryside, both Kimsrung Lov and Rada Chhorn faced steep odds in obtaining a college education.

Lov’s father, a small business owner in a town 57 miles outside of Phnom Penh, believed that because girls were only destined to become housewives, it was a waste for them to receive an education.

Chhorn was raised on a small farm in a village with no electricity or plumbing, and her family could not afford to pay for college.

Despite these obstacles, Lov and Chhorn not only earned undergraduate degrees, but they became two of just a handful of Cambodian students to study abroad in the United States.

Lov and Chhorn spent the past year at Bowdoin attending classes and living on campus. They are the third and forth Cambodian women to study at Bowdoin (following last year’s two students, Marady Kith and Kalyan Yim) through the Harpswell Foundation’s exchange program with the College.

Kimsrung Lov with Lisa Flanagan, Bowdoin’s English advisor for multilingual students

The Harpswell Foundation, established in 2003 by physicist, novelist and MIT professor Alan Lightman, helps young Cambodian women with great potential but limited means earn an education. The foundation has built two university dorms in the capital city of Phnom Penh to provide poor female students, who are barred from living in Buddhist pagodas like their male peers, with free room and board. The foundation also provides its residents training in English, computer literacy, leadership and critical thinking skills.

Lightman says the purpose behind his mission is to help Cambodia recover from the crippling legacy of the Khmer Rouge.  The most effective way to do this, he argues, is to empower and educate its people, particularly its women. The women who qualify to live at the Harpswell Foundation are selected based on their intelligence and their leadership potential. Lightman says his expectation is that in 20 years these women will be leading the country as heads of hospitals, businesses, NGOs, government agencies and entrepreneurs.

Recently, Lov and Chhorn gave talks at Bowdoin, recounting their stories about how they ended up last fall in Brunswick, Maine. Macy Galvan ’13 also spoke about her time last summer as a Leadership Resident at one of the foundation’s dorms, where she taught English and critical thinking classes to the students.

Lov first told her story of growing up in a family in which her brothers were encouraged to pursue college while she and her sisters were told to stay home and learn the family business.

But Lov said she aspired to do more than sell cement and boat equipment. Eventually, she convinced her father to let her attend university if she earned a scholarship. Because she graduated in the top 2 percent of high school students in her country, she had no problem achieving this, and went on to get a degree in computer science.

Alan Lightman, founder of the Harpswell Foundation, and Rada Chhorn, a Bowdoin student from Cambodia

Alan Lightman, founder of the Harpswell Foundation, and Rada Chhorn

While a university student, Lov lived in Harpswell Foundation’s dorms for three years, forging bonds with the other young women there. “We have the same goal, which is making a better future for Cambodia,” she said.

After Bowdoin, Lov plans to return to Cambodia and work in technology. She admitted, though, that while she finds computer science classes fascinating, she was most affected by her education courses at Bowdoin. “When I return to Cambodia I am not going to just make money from [my] computer science major. I am going to integrate education with technology, so the next generation of Cambodian people can make use of technology,” she said.

Chhorn said that before she moved into one of Harpswell Foundation’s dorm rooms, she had lived with her sister in the city. When Chhorn won a scholarship to university, her sister volunteered to live with Chhorn in the city and work to cover Chhorn’s university and living expenses. But Chhorn said she couldn’t bear to see her sister toiling so much and so took a job as a waitress, earning just $90 a month.

When Chhorn heard of the Harpswell Foundation, she applied and was accepted as a resident. Once she graduated from university in Phnom Penh, the foundation selected her, and Lov, to attend Bowdoin for a year.

At Bowdoin, like many other students, Chhorn discovered a passion for a new academic field. Although she had majored in psychology at home, here she became fascinated with gender and women’s studies. Next year, she plans to start a Ph.D. program at California’s Alliant International University to study clinical psychology, after which she plans to return to Cambodia to work for women’s rights.

Both she and Lov commented on the many differences between their lives here and in Cambodia, specifically on the abundance of Bowdoin and its academic offerings, such as the “countless books in the libraries,” “the heaps of food,” “the faculty members who are always friendly and helpful,” and the “small classes.”

In Cambodia, university professors are paid very little, so often have to rush off to other jobs after they finish their lectures, Lightman said. They have no extra time for students.

As she was thanking the many people who have helped her this year, Lov added, “Thank you to the professors who allowed me to be in their classes and to discover new things.” She said that she will take back the knowledge she gleaned here to Cambodia to help the next generation.

 

 

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