Alan Lightman is the rare professor who has published on relativistic plasmas and also has a book deal with Pantheon. A professor of the practice of the humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lightman is a trained astrophysicist who has published six novels – including the New York Times bestseller Einstein’s Dreams – a book of poetry, and more than 10 nonfiction books, ranging from essay collections to popular science to physics textbooks. His most recent book, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation, was published in January; his essay, “Our Place in the Universe,” is featured in the latest issue of Harper’s.
It would be enough to keep most people busy. But for the better part of the last decade, Lightman has devoted half his time to humanitarian work. He is the founding director of the Harpswell Foundation, which seeks to expand access to higher education and provide leadership training to talented young women in Cambodia.
“It was partly accidental and partly not accidental,” the 64-year-old Lightman says of how the foundation got started. “I knew that I wanted to do some humanitarian work later in life, but this happened sooner than I was planning.”
It happened, Lightman says, when he and his daughter, Elyse, traveled to Cambodia in December 2003. While there, Lightman met a woman who told him that when she was attending university in the mid-'90s in the capital city of Phnom Penh, she and six other female students slept in the six-foot-deep crawl space beneath a university building. (In Cambodia, buildings are elevated on stilts because of the monsoons.)
Lightman was struck by the woman’s courage and her commitment to getting a higher education. And he became aware of an underlying problem: while most of Cambodia’s universities are in Phnom Penh, only 10 percent of the country’s population lives there. The universities do not provide housing.
“If you’re a woman living in the countryside, no matter how smart you are, if you don’t have a place to live in Phnom Penh, you’re out of luck,” says Lightman. He explains that while men can live in Buddhist pagodas while pursuing a college education, this option is not open for women. Furthermore, he says, even if a woman’s family can afford to rent her an apartment in Phnom Penh, concerns about safety often preclude them from doing so.
All this is in the context of the fact that Cambodia lost much of its educated population in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge genocide. “It’s a country that’s without an educated elite, so for someone who’s in the education business, like me, it is a very, very powerful challenge: how do you help a country get back on its feet?” Lightman asks.
The Harpswell Foundation opened its first dormitory and leadership center for women in Phnom Penh in 2006 and the second in 2009. Together, the dormitories house 80 women, who come from all over the country. All were among the top four female students in their high schools. Most come from very poor families. “The profile of a typical student is that her parents are farmers -- some only have one parent -- she has four or five siblings, she lives in a one-room house with no electricity and no plumbing and she’s never been to a doctor in her life,” Lightman says.
The women are enrolled at any one of Phnom Penh’s universities, and study a wide variety of fields including biology, engineering, English, finance, Khmer literature, law, medicine and pharmacy. In addition to their university coursework, students take Harpswell’s supplemental curriculum, which emphasizes critical thinking and analysis, public speaking and English. Each week, students must take three hours of English language instruction and participate in two hourlong discussions of current events. (The latter are called Cambodia Daily discussions, as students use the local newspaper as their text.) Students also participate in required leadership seminars two Sundays each month: on one Sunday they study Cambodian history – “every leader needs to know the history of their own country,” Lightman says – and on the other they examine case studies of great female leaders.
“We want to inspire them,” says Varony Ing, the senior manager of the foundation. “How can they become great woman who can contribute to and share their knowledge with their own country and the world?”
“Harpswell is like a family to me. It is also a place that changed my life,” says Savada Prom, president of the Harpswell Alumnae Association and a member of the first Harpswell class, which moved into the original dormitory in 2006. Prom, who graduated from the Royal University of Law and Economics, now works at a law firm in Phnom Penh and hopes to complete her master of laws degree overseas before sitting for Cambodia’s bar exam. She hopes eventually to work in the country’s Ministry of Justice.
Prom comes from the Siem Reap province in the north of the country – where the Temple of Angkor Wat and the tourists are – about a 6-hour bus ride from the capital. Coming to Phnom Penh, meeting smart girls from around the country, “it made me see that there is a bigger world that I can obtain,” she says.
“As a girl, I thought maybe I could be a bank teller, but I had no idea that I could be a lawyer.”
A dollar goes a long way in Cambodia. Lightman says the foundation’s annual budget is around $215,000. Of this, $175,000 funds all operations in Cambodia, including room and board for 80 students, salaries for five staff members, maintenance of the two dorms, a 24-hour security guard for each dorm, computers (there are 20), and even tuition scholarships for those students who don’t receive scholarships from the government or their university (about a third of Harpswell’s students). The Cambodia budget also funds an elementary school Harpswell built in the Muslim village of Tramung Chrum.
The other $40,000 is used for American operations, including Lightman's travel to Cambodia (two trips per year) and support for select Harpswell students to spend a year in the United States. Lightman has personally arranged fellowships and in-kind support for students to spend a year at Agnes Scott College, Bard College, Bowdoin College, Northeastern University, or the School for International Training after they graduate from their Cambodian institutions.
Five Harpswell students are currently on fellowships in the U.S., including Rada Chhorn, who studied psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and is taking courses on gender and sexuality studies at Bowdoin. She hopes when she returns to Cambodia to work in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs or a nongovernmental women’s rights organization.
The students who receive fellowships to study in the U.S. must sign a commitment that they will return to work in Cambodia for at least three years. The first year the foundation sent students here, in 2010, it didn’t require such a commitment and two of the five stayed behind and married Americans. “That really crushed me,” Lightman says. “After putting so many resources into each of these students, and then to have them come to the U.S. and stay here … it completely defeats our mission.”
“Our goal is that 20 years from now, our Harpswell graduates will be cabinet ministers, they will be heads of hospitals, they will be heads of law firms, they will be heads of NGOs, they will be entrepreneurs,” says Lightman.
“If we succeed only in helping the particular women that go to our program, and that’s all we help, then I feel like we’re not achieving our goal. Our goal is to help Cambodia. We view these women as agents of change.”
“A leader is not someone who’s just helping themselves. They are helping a community and in this case, we’re hoping, an entire country.”