One of the differences between college life at Bowdoin versus university life in Phnom Penh is that here professors and staff are available to meet with students easily and often.
In Cambodia, professors have little time because they typically work extra jobs to augment their low university pay, Marady Kith, a Cambodian student, explains. “Professors don’t have office hours,” she says. She emphasizes ‘office hours’ as if it were a strange custom, causing her audience to laugh.
But that’s not the only difference: the countless books in the libraries here, the heaps of food, the small classes, the laptops, the ubiquitous wireless network, the advisors who are generous with their time — all are unheard of back home. “American students are so lucky,” Kith says. “I think, ‘Oh, my poor Cambodian students.’”
Kith and Kalyan Yim, another Cambodian exchange student studying at Bowdoin this year, both gave a short talk Friday to an audience in Moulton Union, describing their backgrounds in Cambodia, their education, their perspectives of Bowdoin and their career plans.
Their remarks were preceded by a talk from Alan Lightman, a physicist, novelist and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is the founder of the Harpswell Foundation and responsible for bringing Kith and Yim to Bowdoin.
The women are pioneers of a new exchange program at Bowdoin, supported by the Harpswell Foundation, which brings two female Cambodian students here for a year of post-graduate study, and sends one Bowdoin student to work at a young women’s leadership program in Phnom Penh over the summer. Macy Galvan ’13, will live in one of the foundation’s two dorms this summer, teaching the residents English and leading current-events discussions.
We’re about education, and we’re about opportunity, and you two are exactly what this college is about.
—President Barry Mills
Several years ago Lightman and his wife started the nonprofit foundation to build dormitory housing for female students so they could attend university in Phnom Penh. The organization also annually selects and supports 20 bright, ambitious girls from country villages to live in the dorms and earn their four-year college degree.
The foundation’s mission is to increase the number of women leaders in Cambodia, a country still recovering from the ruinous Khmer Rouge regime. Ninety percent of the population lives outside the city, earning an average income of $500 a year, according to Lightman. He says the Harpswell students study a range of subjects, from accounting to economics to law to pharmacology, at one of 15 universities in the city.
Kith says she plans on working to strengthen human rights when she returns to Cambodia, protecting, for instance, poor farmers’ right to land. Yim says she wants to support women and children who are victims of domestic violence, and plans to earn a master’s degree in social work one day.
“I am thankful for the Harpswell Foundation,” Yim says. “It gave me a new life. And I can’t believe I am at Bowdoin. I grew up without food, electricity, clean water. We lived in a house of palm trees. It is a huge contrast with home.”
Before the evening wrapped up, President Barry Mills told Kith and Yim that he hopes they remain connected to Bowdoin after they return to Cambodia. “It’s nice to think when you go back to your country and be leaders, you will have this connection to Maine and Bowdoin,” he said, adding later, “We’re about education, and we’re about opportunity, and you two are exactly what this college is about.”