Who Benefits?

When American students want to do good in the developing world, do they have the tools to help or are they going to be a burden on those who do? Debra Carney asks some tough questions.

December 14, 2009

A student who e-mailed me about pursuing grants to work independently in Cambodia ended nearly every sentence with an exclamation point. When I met her, she told me that she had traveled to the country with her family a few years earlier, but allowed that she could not recall much about what she had seen. Still, she believed that winning a fellowship would be a great opportunity! Another student’s communiqué declared that she wanted to teach but also demanded to know, "Can I make a living wage there?" When I replied that no wage was more likely, I never heard from her again. A colleague, at mid-life and restless, told me that she wanted to do "something like you do … go and work somewhere exotic."

I understood their desires and motivations. Before I had actually worked in Cambodia, I had experienced all these feelings. And I believe in the incomparable benefits of international experience and education. However, I’ve also found myself growing protective both of a country that I know needs more than just to be someone’s springboard (including my own) and of the students and professionals who may not have fully considered the impact of their plans on themselves and Cambodians.

I also think this issue has wider reverberations, beyond Cambodia. In an American economy so feeble, and with jobs so scarce, many students (and professionals) may feel that gaining grants and applying to national service programs, for work both domestic and abroad, represent their best chances to acquire experience and subsequent employment — even when they may not be well-matched to, or well-served by, the grants and service programs they seek. Thus, I often wonder how educators and students can best balance their own desires and ambitions with those of the countries and populations that they seek to explore.

In 2004, funded by Smith College, where I work, I made the first of four January-long trips to Cambodia to provide staff and faculty development workshops at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and Social Services of Cambodia. In 2009, I was the first American awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant to the country’s National Institute of Education (NIE) in Phnom Penh, where I conducted workshops in pedagogy and language skills for graduate students: future secondary school teachers who will labor in Cambodia’s provinces, the "remote areas," as my NIE students termed their professional destinations.

Although these students were engaged and resourceful participants in my workshops and genuinely enthusiastic about teaching, they were also realistic about their futures. Once assigned to their provincial secondary schools, they will earn about $50 per month (less than Cambodia’s per capita GDP of $723) and teach in classrooms with up to 60 students. Most of their own students will attend irregularly, as they will be needed at home for harvests, household help and childcare. These educators will likely teach all their lives in these schools where adequate books, supplies and ongoing training will be only dreams.

As for my dreams, my own work in Cambodia fulfilled a long-held one, and like many inchoate desires, it began in fantasies not entirely reasonable: I had never been to Cambodia, I spoke no Khmer, and I didn’t know a single person in Cambodian higher education. However, I had tutored Cambodian refugees in Western Massachusetts and read widely and voraciously about the country and its people. For reasons I don’t entirely understand — nor need to — I felt compelled to find a way to work in the country. So I developed contacts, wrote letters, sent my CV, and applied for funding. By the time I made my first trip to Phnom Penh, more than 20 years into a career as a college educator, I was in possession of a skill set that this post-conflict nation could use.

My main contact at the Royal University — and in Cambodia — was Sister Luise Ahrens, Ph.D., a wry, sanguine and seemingly indefatigable Maryknoll nun and educator who has lived in Cambodia since 1991; she helped develop and now oversees the curriculum at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She also seeks to increase the professional capacities of the Cambodian faculty, few of whom, when I first began working in Cambodia, had completed a graduate education. (In fact, fewer than half of Cambodians aged 15 to 24 have even completed primary school, making the need for motivated and motivating teachers — and for a stronger educational system in general — particularly acute.)

My workshops and individual consultations on teaching and learning issues with Royal University instructors, social service workers, and NIE graduate students were in service of Sister Luise’s and her Cambodian and expatriate colleagues’ goals. And, as Sister Luise believes ardently, "the legacy of the tragic history here makes teaching both a challenge and a joy." Thus, only an experienced educator — one knowledgeable about and flexible in a myriad of educational settings and situations — could have done the work. (Although, I hasten to add, that this educator certainly didn’t have to have been me.)

At the same time, I will never forget the almost giddy excitement I felt when I first arrived in Phnom Penh, a city I had researched and imagined so vividly that it seemed almost familiar to me: its languid, electric air; the packed streets and shop-houses; market stalls redolent of ripe fish and fruit; a silver sunbeam knifing the Mekong. Familiar, but no place like home. This achievement of willed dislocation opened me in crucial ways to experience, insight and learning: precisely the goals we educators have for ourselves in our teaching endeavors and for all our students’ educations. At its best, this kind of purposeful, planful travel encourages a comparative, evaluative and critical habit of mind that I want to maintain for myself and engender and encourage in my students.

So, after my first project in Phnom Penh, and back at Smith, I became an informal "Cambodia person" for students (and some professionals) thinking of pursuing work or study projects there. Smith has no formal exchange program with institutions in Cambodia, but I am happy to talk to interested people about my experiences and share my contacts when I can. Every time I respond to a student’s request for assistance, though, I am mindful of the emphatic warning I received from Sister Luise:

"You can’t send kids because they cannot do the work independently, and it’s a lot of work to mind them."

She made it clear to me that the onus would have to be on the home institution or the students themselves. Thus, my own experience working in Cambodia as well as my conversations with Sister Luise and other colleagues, both in Cambodia and at Smith, led to my writing a caveat in one of my project reports that was posted on Smith’s fellowships Web page.

…[S]tudents planning projects in Cambodia need to be aware of the country’s volatile history and present circumstances. Cambodia remains a politically unstable — often lawless — country. Illegal drugs are widely available, and violence — including political violence — is common. Medical facilities are well below American standards, tropical diseases are prevalent, and serious traffic accidents in Phnom Penh are endemic. Thus, American students in Cambodia need to be particularly mature and responsible and/or supervised closely by adult staff from their home colleges.

Sister Luise’s concern was shared by another American expat I met during my first trip to Cambodia. In 2004, Lea Dooley, an HIV/AIDS program adviser, took to her blog to ruminate about the state of play in Cambodian politics. In July of that year, Cambodia’s national elections had taken place, "complete," as Lea wrote, "with election observers from around the world [including] a bunch of giggling interns who talked about Cambodia as if they’d been here for two years and not two days." Lea was in her early 30s then, and a veteran of international aid work. She noted with dry irony that the lead-up to the election was "tense." She then proceeded with insight and detail to document the deep wells of poverty, corruption, impunity, intimidation and fear that most Cambodians endure. "You can’t tell WHAT is going on out here unless you actually ARE here," Lea noted.

Whether we met over dinner in Phnom Penh or, later, exchanged thoughts in email conversations, I was (and am) always intrigued by Lea’s well-earned perspectives and observations, expressed in ways that are by turns warm, witty, generous, and occasionally caustic. Even after leaving CARE and Cambodia to work in Washington, she offered to talk with any of my students interested in careers in international public health.

I’ve been frank in my e-mail conversations with Sister Luise and Lea about the conundrum I sometimes feel when students whom I know are not ready to work at the Royal University or in aid agencies ask me for advice in developing individual projects in Cambodia.

On the subject, Sister Luise is direct. She wants students to bring something to the enterprise. She speaks of the partnership program that Maryknoll has with the University of Notre Dame, which sends students for service learning, but "the program there makes the students learn ESL and do it for a semester with immigrants in South Bend before they come, so that they are not totally new to teaching before they get into [teaching in Cambodia]." In addition to their teaching, while in Cambodia, the Notre Dame students volunteer in supervised settings including hospices and schools for disabled children. This work and its prerequisite training, Sister Luise believes, "is often quite good for both them and the clients."

Still, she told me, "Our real need is for people with Ph.D.'s to come here and teach in the various master's programs. They can always use the Royal University as a base and do their own research — some areas are wide open for research right now. Of course, we cannot pay them, so if they are on paid sabbaticals, this would be the best way to go — or if they had a grant."

And recently, Lea wrote to me about the cachet that failed states often have for people — for better and worse. She described "all the right earmarks — a funky language, you need a passport, a visa, AND shots; there is the thrill of recent disaster and lawlessness that goes well with sex and drugs and death." She continued, "Perhaps I’m getting older so my perspective is changing….though truthfully, it seemed as though we [her fellow relief workers] were a bit more connected to doing the work for an ethical compulsion and less for a combo spa/ethical internship."

I take these perspectives seriously. All three of us know of some wonderful opportunities in Cambodia for emerging young scholars (such as the Luce and Fulbright programs) as well as strong organizations (various college programs and the Peace Corps among them) who welcome young volunteers, provide support and training, and offer valuable placements where students can be of real service, gain useful experience, and learn in an unparalleled education setting: another world. Several of my students have found success with these opportunities, thus fulfilling their own goals and gaining crucial credentials that will certainly prepare them for more independent work and study.

Certainly, Cambodia needs development assistance greatly, and also, certainly, the country can serve, like so many other developing nations, as little more than an alien backdrop for first world others’ ambitions, whimsies, and caprice. Yet every mature, seasoned and committed professional working in challenging lands had, as some part of his or her motivation to go, that yearning for the world elsewhere. Thus, perhaps the best course for me is encouraging both students and professionals with that urge for going to indeed dream large and imagine greatly — but not just for what we want to do. We need also to consider what we can and need to learn, so that, as Sister Luise says, "We can be genuine partners in development, at the service of the people whose lives we want to share."


Debra Carney teaches in the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College.


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