During my trip to Cambodia in early September, my first stop was Siem Reap, the site of Cambodia’s world-famous ruins of Angkor, including Angkor Wat. For me, however, the main draw was two alumni of the Harpswell Foundation dormitories in Phnom Penh: Suon Raksmey and So Dany. They completed their college degrees in 2010: Suon majored in biology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and So completed a law degree at Royal University of Law & Economics, in Phnom Penh. (For a taste of life at the Harpswell dorms, go here; to meet some of the science majors at the Harpswell dorms, go here)
The two young women are now teachers at the Jay Pritzker Academy, located near Tachet village in Siem Reap. JPA is a pre-K-to-12, English-language college-preparatory school with a goal of enabling all its graduates to qualify for admission in U.S. universities. Students at JPA come from the surrounding poor communities. They receive free education, uniforms, books, materials, three meals a day, and even hygiene kits.
Suon and So have a special mission at JPA. They are helping the first batch of college-bound JPA students prepare for the Cambodian national college entrance exams. As JPA director and principal Hedi Belkaoui explained, even though the school’s goal is to prepare all students to be admissible to U.S. colleges and universities, JPA needs to prepare for the possibility that some students won’t make the cut. Students therefore need also to be admissible to Cambodian universities as a backup plan.
Instruction in JPA is in both English and Khmer. But the Cambodian national college entrance exam is only in Khmer. JPA therefore needs to ensure that students, especially those who would like to apply for admission to science degrees, have the same mastery of subjects in Khmer as they do in English. Suon and So are teaching chemistry, biology, math, and physics in Khmer to JPA’s eleventh-grade students.
Suon and So fulfill their roles at JPA with seriousness, confidence, and discipline, but also with joy in helping Cambodian children from poor families take advantage of unique opportunities similar to what they themselves enjoyed through the Harpswell Foundation. Already they are manifesting the leadership potential that got them admitted to the Harpswell dorms in the first place.