Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for June, 2014

Volunteer Tom Conner Pays it Forward

June 25, 2014 By: karig2 Category: Cambodia Volunteer Program, General No Comments →

It is time for me to offer some concluding thoughts on my experience at SSI. I leave in a few days’ time to return home. It has been a very good experience for me on the whole, though I was expecting to do more teaching. However, thanks to my conversations with Bruce and Paul, I have acquired a basic understanding of how SSI works. Moreover, we have discussed various initiatives that might help the organization to grow by generating new sources of revenue. In the end, it is as much about money as anything else. Good ideas will never get implemented without money and to continue the good work it does SSI needs to raise more money. Donations only go so far, which makes it necessary to contemplate other initiatives. For example, Bruce has a plan to create a “language café,” which will lead to the creation of a de facto language school. While the Language Café will generate income of its own, it will need funding to get started and to operate. So why not consider other projects that might generate the income necessary to stay in business and to expand?

Before checking out I thought I would take a stab at a few things a college professor like myself could do to contribute to the mission of SSI without expending too much time or effort.

A teacher like myself could easily put together a short-term trip to Cambodia and use SSI to coordinate the visit. SSI would host visitors much like they do today and arrange day trips and visits to points of interest in exchange for which they would be handsomely paid. Visits come in all flavors: study tours (I regularly teach a section on French Indochina in my French Civilization class and would love to take a group of students to Cambodia); service learning projects (SL is the new buzzword in higher ed and participants would teach either at the Academy or at the local high school); teacher education (students could come for a month or more and teach as part of their practicum and gain valuable intercultural competence); recent graduates of ESL programs could volunteer for a semester or longer in order to gain an edge on the job market (although the ESL business continues to grow, graduates are not finding good employment immediately and need additional teaching experience).

Further, professors could organize Skype partners for deserving students at SSI’s Leadership Academy from among their students and engage in fund raising on their campus. In addition, I don’t think it would be impossible for us to petition our administration to sponsor the occasional ESL student. Senior administrators everywhere are always talking about “community,” “compassion,” and “solidarity.” Let them put their money where their mouth is for a change! In this respect, my home institution, St. Norbert College, has been quite generous. For example, we have an ESL program like this for Vietnamese nuns (we are a Catholic college). If we were to receive an ESL student from the Academy, a homestay with an American family could easily be organized and would not cost anything. SSI can easily tap into the good will that exists on American campuses and among Americans in general; the volunteer spirit is still alive and well. Donating books or computers might prove too expensive due to the exorbitant fees charged by UPS and the non-existence of a functioning Cambodian post office, so donating money might be far more practical. Lastly, sponsoring a student or group of students in Cambodia need not cost more than $40 a month, according to the literature I have read. SSI is a very worthwhile and credible institution with a small but extraordinarily dedicated and competent core of hardworking officers.  When in doubt and unsure of what you can do, get out your check book! Even a small gift can make all the difference in the world.









Tom Conner

St. Norbert College

De Pere, WI



Volunteer Arrives in Chrauk Tiek Village

June 23, 2014 By: karig2 Category: Cambodia Volunteer Program No Comments →

By Tom Conner, Chrauk Tiek Village, Cambodia

Several days have passed since my last blog. Since then, I have visited the SSI model school, the Grady Grossman School in the village of Chrauk Tiek, which is situated inside the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, about three hours by van northwest of the capital of Phnom Penh. Apparently, road conditions have improved in just the last year or so, making the trip a lot easier than I had expected. Or else we were just lucky. Traffic can be a nightmare in Cambodia, though not as bad as in the Philippines, for example. Also, the weather gods have blessed us with clear skies. Rainy season is late this year, just like in Japan, which I visited last month to teach my summer class at our sister university outside Tokyo. What is it with the climate everywhere these days? But the good weather is a mixed blessing for some. Farmers have plowed their fields and are busy planting a variety of crops; they need the rain desperately.

I traveled together with the local SSI team consisting of Paul, Bruce, and Phearith. Our driver was unusually law abiding and, thankfully, seemed intent on getting his passengers to destination in one piece. Otherwise, driving in Cambodia can be adventurous, to say the least. I was riding “shotgun,” that is, in front, in the so-called “seat of death” and kept my eyes glued to the road as well on our driver. Cambodia has one of the worst traffic safety records in the world and I was in no mood to contribute to the gruesome statistics. For starters, why can’t the government impose a helmet law like in Vietnam. I was in Hanoi when the law went into effect a few years back and people complied without protest. Although motorbike taxis here usually have a helmet for a foreign customer and helmets are a common sight on roads in Phnom Penh, many Cambodians still resist the idea of protecting themselves. My vigilance during our trip up did not prevent me from enjoying the view, however. Cambodia is changing rapidly. New developments are going up everywhere and it seems they can’t build fast enough. As Bruce pointed out, Cambodia seems poised to “take off”  in a not too distant future. The National Geographic Guide to Cambodia proclaims: “The 21st century has served as a new dawn for the kingdom of Cambodia. With the scourge of war gone and economic investment flooding in, there is a palpable exuberance throughout the country. And as Cambodia grows integrated in the world economy, foreign visitors, ideas, and trends increase in influence” (14). But, for this economic miracle to happen, the government has to lead by example and set realistic goals that do not sacrifice the interests of ordinary people or the environment, for that matter. I am not sure that this kind of leadership exists today. All to often, the big companies, many of them multinationals, come in and lay down the law.

We arrive in the village and are greeted by a throng of curious students, boys and girls ranging in age from seven or eight to about sixteen. In many cases it is quite impossible to guess a student’s age; a young girl looks about eight or nine and turns out to be thirteen. Although the school enrolls students in grades one through six, children often matriculate at an older age because they have started late or dropped out for a year or more, which is why in one sixth grade class I visited there was a student as old as sixteen. We chat for a while with the students and then unpack our few belongings and settle in.

We are staying in two guesthouses on school grounds, at a distance of about one hundred yards behind the main building. Accommodations are spartan but perfectly adequate in my opinion, though I imagine many tourists would be unimpressed and rather frustrated by the lack of electricity and running water. But this is not your average tourist destination, either, and visitors from abroad who make the trek the whole way up here usually are mentally prepared and aware of the challenges involved. No thrills and no frills, but I am nevertheless pleased by my simple room with its mattress on the floor with a mosquito net draped over it. The veranda has a chair and a table where I can sit in the afternoon evening and contemplate the landscape. The surroundings are peaceful, almost serene. The Cardamom mountains rise majestically in the background. Mount Aural at just over one thousand meters high is the highest peak in Cambodia. Perhaps I will climb it one day, adding to my list of mountains climbed (all of them very modest, I hasten to add. I am not a hero and no one will find my frozen body at 7678 meters one year after I disappear).

When the sun sets it gets dark very, very fast. The generator is on a for a few hours in the early evening and helps us get our bearings in the dark. But we turn in early being quite tired after a long day on the road. I sleep soundly, and my sleep is interrupted only by the tireless loggers whose trucks lumber by on the newly constructed road that passes in front of the school. These guys won’t be happy until they cut down every last tree, I think to myself as I go back to sleep. What will happen to the rainwater then during rainy season when there are no longer any roots to absorb all that water? But no seems to think that far. At least they are planting trees and crops on the land, unlike in some places I have visited, Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, where the ravaged land lies obscenely bare, like an open wound (which is exactly what it is if you think about it).

In the afternoon I teach an English class to about twenty-five third graders. Students listen attentively and are exceedingly polite: when called upon, they rise to answer. However, most are unable to comprehend or at least respond to even basic phrases even though they have been studying the language for at least two years. I attribute this weakness to several circumstances, among them a lack of appropriate textbooks and an outdated teaching methodology. As a foreign language teacher myself back in the States, I was not exactly happy with what I saw in this classroom. Teaching seemed to consist mainly of rote memorization and studying basic vocabulary charts (animals, fish, trees, vegetables, etc.) I prefer to the so-called interactive method, which has students practice dialogues in class. Listen and repeat by all means, correcting students along the way to reinforce correct pronunciation, but then students must be prepared to implement what they have learned in real life situations. Phearith does some of that at the Academy in Phnom Penh, I am glad to report.  Unless students can use what they learn they don’t really know it, do they? Moreover, teachers should use the target language in class as much as possible and use Khmer only to explain difficult concepts of grammar. Give me just a month with these kids and I could make them proficient, I remember thinking to myself. I was very much impressed by the energy of students and by their positive attitude, which energizes and inspires me. Moreover, everyone seems to be having fun; the kids are smiling and eager to participate even though most are terribly shy. Before taking leave of the youngsters I try and impress upon them the need to master English and math. In any other country they would learn enough about computers on their own but not here, so I will add IT to that laundry list of must-study subjects.

Nothing I saw really surprised me that much. As I tried to explain to my travel companions, I have criss-crossed Cambodia many times and seen a lot, including a couple of schools in the countryside. And I have some perspective, my first visit dating back fifty years this year. But, thanks to my stay in Aural, I am able to better visualize what an average school day looks like for kids of very modest means whose parents make enormous sacrifices for their child to get an education. Instead of keeping their children  at home to help out on the family farm, for example, they send them to school to give them a better shot at a decent future. I am unclear of the graduation rate and how many continue on to junior and senior high school. A lucky few are recruited by SSI to continue high school or even university in PhnomPenh, where they are housed at the Leadership Academy.

The last night we are invited to have dinner at the home of Leadership Academy student’s parents. They have prepared a sumptuous meal for us: three courses and home grown rice. A real treat,  washed down with the local brew, the omnipresent Angkor beer. We sit in the dark outside on a table, the only light provided by a small lamp powered by an ancient-looking  generator. At the end of the evening, the father of another student, who has also been invited by our hosts, thanked us for coming and went on to say how much he appreciated the commitment of SSI and vowed to support his child until she graduated. “We insist that she do no work at home in order to give her the necessary time to do her homework and thereby get a head start in life, “ he revealed to us. This is the kind of commitment that is needed on the part of parents in this impoverished nation and contrasts with the ruthless stories we hear of parents who sell their young daughters to brothels. I was much moved and vowed then and there to make a real effort myself to improve the chances of these kids to have a shot at a decent life. There is a lot that someone like myself, a college professor of modest means, can do. More about that in my next and final blog.

Tom Conner

st. norbert college, de pere, wi

A New Volunteer Arrives in Cambodia

June 23, 2014 By: karig2 Category: Cambodia Volunteer Program No Comments →

by Tom Conner, Phnom Penh Cambodia

I arrived in Phnom Penh from Bangkok in mid-afternoon, on time, I should add (Air Asia has a pretty good on-time performance record), and was greeted by my hosts at the SSI Leadership Academy. It was raining lightly but not like in the Philippines or India. Boy does it ever rain there! The French have a saying: “il pleut comme le poing” (literally, “it rains like a fist”). I had been warned to expect rain in Cambodia and a lot of it, but I have visited Cambodia many times, including during rainy season, and am not easily intimidated to begin with. Even Japan during rainy season is a lot worse than anything I have ever seen here. All things considered, Cambodia during rainy season aint’t that bad. Though the streets tend to be unusually cluttered with garbage.

To my surprise we boarded a tuk-tuk for the short trip over to the Academy, which is situated in the remote hinterland of the main road leading in to Phnom Penh. I avoid tuk-tuks like the plague in Thailand (and curse Thai tuk-tuk drivers who, in my experience, are all scammers, or worse, but our tuk-tuk was unusually spacious and comfortable. Of course, that is before we ventured off the paved road and into a maze of narrow and very busy side roads. I am definitely NOT going to go jogging around here. I pride myself over my good sense of direction, but my built-in compass must not be working here, or is it jet-lag, I wonder, because I could never find my way out of this labyrinth. Being the eternal optimist, I am willing to give it a shot tomorrow, though; I do have my cell phone after all and hope that I can dial for help. The local crew at the Academy is so very helpful and probably would not mind to come to my rescue.

Speaking of the staff, I was impressed by my warm reception. After settling in and unpacking my few belongings, I sat down to dinner with the complete group of students, all twenty-seven of them, to enjoy a delicious rice and pork dish and some good conversation. Not to dominate the conversation too much I kept my self-introduction brief and to the point, and then turned things over to my new students, hoping that they could come up with some good questions. I was not disappointed in this regard and by the time I straggled back to my room two hours later we had covered a wide range of subjects, including differences between our two countries and recent changes I have observed here over the past quarter of a century or so. For starters, cars are becoming ever more numerous and motorbikes no longer dominate the city streets the way they once did. And street lighting is more common, as are traffic lights. It remains to be seen when traffic rules will become strictly enforced.

My accommodations, though spartan, are more than adequate for my purposes and, I would venture, to say very comfortable. And the Internet connection is amazingly fast. Far better than what you get in most American hotels that all vaunt their so-called high connection.

The first day of my stay I met with one of the site coordinators, Bruce, to talk shop. We intended to discuss issues like curriculum development but did not get that far before a student appeared, looking to engage us in some casual conversation. We were only too happy to oblige and spent the next two hours or so talking about things like demographics and sustainable growth. Cambodia is growing at leaps and bounds but, hopefully, growth not only will continue unabated but also will not come at the expense of the environment, for example. Students are quite proficient in English but need practice speaking, so I plan to try hard to engage them in real-life conversation whenever I can.would venture, to say very comfortable. And the Internet connection is amazingly fast. Far better than what you get in most American hotels that all vaunt their so-called high connection.

I am looking forward to the next few days and hopefully gain a better sense of where I fit in and how I can best contribute to the SSI program.

Tom Conner