By Ryan Semerad
I have been living in Siem Reap, Cambodia for just over one month as part of a Union study abroad program. My peers and I have been busy learning the lay of the land in town, studying the culture and language, and teaching Cambodian students English. Although it has only been a month, it feels like it has been both a much shorter and much longer time because of all the different activities we have done and the unique places we have seen.
So far, we’ve been to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, as well as two rural villages, Koh Ker and Banteay Mancheay. In Phnom Penh, we stayed in a traditional hotel when we visited the Royal Palace, the national museum, a local temple, and the harrowing and infamous Killing Fields and S21 Khmer Rouge Prison facility. In Koh Ker and Banteay Mancheay, we stayed in rural homes with locals.
While traveling around Cambodia has been rewarding in its own right, the most rewarding experience so far has been working with the local children. They are the most determined, eager and intelligent group of kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
They work together incredibly well and demonstrate a kind of serenity that’s hard to find in American classrooms.
Rachel Magin ‘14 and I work with students at a rural school just outside of Siem Reap. Our students come to school every day after working the rice fields, yet they never seem tired or upset by this. Sasha Zuflacht ‘13, Kaylee Queen ‘12 and Xiao Rui Lin ‘12 work with a school in town. Their students are all former street children who come to school as part of a program that allows them to earn money for their families while they gain an education. I don’t have the pleasure of teaching these students, but from what I’ve seen they exhibit the exact same grace under trying circumstances that my students do.
My experience in Cambodia has been unlike anything I have ever done at Union. In my time here, I have gained knowledge about humanity, society, and how we act under the pressures of extraordinary burdens. At home, it is easy to be discouraged by the many trivial tasks we need to perform to make society run like paying taxes or going to the grocery store. Here, it’s easy to be amazed by how the whole country takes on the immense task of surviving against incredible odds with a smile.