Life in a Phnom Penh dormitory is unlike any dorm life I’ve seen before.
The young women at the Harpswell Foundation dormitory in Teuk Thla are all college students, sharing rooms and chores.
Chores? Yes, chores, as in cooking and cleaning.
Cooking is communal, with teams deciding the menu, purchasing ingredients, and preparing lunch and dinner three meals each day of the week. Everyone has cleaning assignments, ensuring that common areas are maintained and kept clean. Residents manually wash their own clothes. Tap water can stop running at any time; water for bathing is tepid at best. Residents must be inside the premises by 8 PM. Sounds like a place the average student in the developed world won’t go near. Yet the young women who live here consider themselves extremely lucky and privileged.
In this dorm, they take part in regularly held English classes, current events discussions based on news from the Cambodia Daily, and leadership training right where they live, for free. They have access to a library, to the Internet, and to resident teachers. It’s a dream place for anyone with high aspirations but whose college education was never a certainty in the first place for financial reasons.
Classes for the 2011-2012 school year have not yet begun, yet the dorm is bustling. Many residents are here, using vacation time to continue studying English or take part in internships. And residents call each other sister and treat each other as sisters in the best sense of the word.
The dorm transforms its residents, many of whom come from farm families in far-flung provinces of Cambodia. As Rous Sreypov tells me, “I have changed a lot since I lived in Harpswell. I have confidence, I can say what I think.” Rous’ parents, who are farmers, studied only until seventh grade. She is about to begin her second year studying economic development.
Like many of the residents I spoke to, Rous sees herself as a potential leader in Cambodia’s development. The vision imposes responsibilities that may seem enormous but all residents embrace, such as older residents sharing time and knowledge to help younger residents, especially those studying in their same field. “Harpswell does not require us to do this,” says Chhon Sophea, a biochemistry major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “We’re sharing out of love; we are doing this by ourselves.”