Just Another River to Cross

Overcoming financial and family pressures — and one fast-moving river — a young woman in Cambodia pursues her dream of a college education. Research and interviews for this story were conducted by University of Oregon student Hallie Rosner, who recently interned with Holt Cambodia through IE3 Global Internships.

Every morning before class, Sath Chheangly puts on her uniform — a neatly pressed, knee-length khaki skirt and crisp white button-down oxford that proudly displays the logo of the university she attends in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She looks like any other college girl, with stylish, blunt-cut bangs and a little personality coming across in her choice of shoes, often a pair of yellow, flowered flip-flops. Quiet and contemplative, Chheangly is a serious student, majoring in economics, rural development and agriculture with extra classes in Chinese.

But she, more than most, knows just how much personal appearance matters.

Growing up in Kampong Chhhmang, a rural agricultural province in central Cambodia, Chheangly had to walk an hour every day to get to school. Every day, she also had to cross a river — a deep, fast-moving channel with no accessible bridge for Chheangly and her siblings to cross. Sometimes, a rickety board was found wedged into the banks. Sometimes not. So some days, Chheangly would get safely across the board. On other days, Chheangly would undress and swim across, and then change back into her uniform. And every so often, the board would fall and Chheangly would still have to swim, only this time fully dressed.

On the days when Chheangly arrived late in soaking wet clothes, her teacher would not let her come into class. Instead, Chheangly would stand outside the door, dripping with embarrassment and river water.

It’s no surprise that most of Chheangly’s seven siblings dropped out of school. Worried about her safety, her parents also wanted her to quit at a young age. But Chheangly was determined. For a chance to live a different life from her parents, she could endure the treacherous journey to school.

“Her family situation was difficult because the amount of rice that they grew was not enough to eat for a whole year,” explains Hallie Rosner, who met Chheangly while interning with Holt Cambodia. “After school, she would have to go find snails in the river to sell for a little extra money.” Sometimes, Chheangly would get a job clearing grass in the chili fields. She used the money she earned to buy clothes and school supplies.

Despite personal sacrifice and pressure from her family, Chheangly persevered. No matter what, she would not drop out. Fortunately, she did have some support and encouragement along the way.

In 2005, a local organization recognized Chheangly’s extraordinary dedication to her studies and through this partnering non-profit, Chheangly became a part of a scholarship program now managed by Holt. Originally started by the organization Friendship With Cambodia, Holt took over this educational program in September 2012. Holt Cambodia now works directly with local non-profit organizations in five different provinces to identify and enroll junior and high school students from poor families in rural areas — giving them the ability to afford private classes, buy school materials and afford health care expenses. The students also form student clubs where they exchange information, share ideas and encourage each other to overcome challenges in their lives and studies. Through the years, this program has kept many students in school, instead of dropping out due to poverty or falling victim to early child labor or human trafficking.

Chheangly with her friends and Hallie.

For Chheangly, the scholarship helps her pay school fees, as well as buy school supplies, clothes and food.

The eldest of her seven siblings, Chheangly is an example for her two youngest sisters — her only siblings to remain in school. She is the first, and so far the only member of her family to attend university. Although an extraordinary accomplishment, her parents still don’t support Chheangly’s ambition to continue her education and would prefer she drop out and get a job. The challenges are many, and her parents’ concern is understandable. Like many college students in Cambodia and even in the U.S., Chheangly doesn’t have a free ride. The scholarship covers Chheangly’s school fees and a few other expenses, but she still struggles to support herself.

Regardless of the challenges, Chheangly remains staunch in her determination to finish school and earn a degree. “She does not want to quit school,” says Hallie. “She wants to study.”

Maybe one day, when Chheangly has graduated from the Royal University of Agriculture and achieved her dream of working for an NGO or as a Chinese interpreter, her parents will finally recognize why their daughter stayed the course all these years.

In the meantime, she is looking for a part-time job. For Chheangly, that’s just one more river to cross.

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