I came to Cambodia with the idea that my time spent here would help me construct some sort of understanding of the ways in which education, grassroots initiatives, community, and local empowerment all play a role in efforts towards what is broadly known as “development”. I came eager to sink my teeth into all of the texts outlined in our syllabus – a healthy mix of memoirs, academic texts, development reports, and fiction – and even more eager to apply all that I was learning in seminar to the experience of being and engaging in the everyday complexities that exist in contemporary Cambodia. In short, I had expected to find myself in an experience that was both highly academic and personally reflective, but what I found was so much more. An enormous part of the learning that has taken place thus far has come from the interactions, participation, and contributions of every single person involved in this experience, and I see it every day.
I see it in the connections that Fiona, Jordan, and Shelley have made with the girls at the City Dorm, and how, in turn, they have engaged us all in conversations about the daily realities and struggles of those girls; I see it in Noah’s self-professed idealism, which pushes us all to think big about endless possibilities for the world around us; I see it in Christina’s enthusiasm and gift of science to the students at the dorm in Srayang, who we all saw eagerly rush to the microscope to get their first close-up look at head lice, which, considering they all have head lice, essentially allowed them to see a part of themselves in a whole new way; I see it in Ashley’s sensitivity to the world around her, and how her instinctive perceptions bring us all back to an understanding of the connections between outward experiences and our humanistic emotions; I see it in the way Jas pushes each of us, every single day, to think critically, ask questions, and act outside our comfort zones, while simultaneously doing the same things herself, from sitting Khmer class and learning the language with us, to thinking through the final preparations for her own research in Cambodia; I see it in the ways we have all collectively pushed difficult questions upon various NGOs doing work in Cambodia, in an attempt to understand the various lenses through which discourses of ‘development’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘support’ are often constructed here; I see it in each and every one of the students I interview in Knar Village, who all have different stories, different goals, and different struggles, but who have all openly shared these things with me, in hopes that their plea to be sent to school is answered; I see it in Lori’s continued faith in the people of Cambodia, and her continued faith in all of us, as well, to engage in and learn from this space she cares deeply about.
We all engage in our own projects. We all engage in our own thoughts. We all engage in our own struggles, successes, and reflections. But most importantly, we all engage with each other. This is learning. This is growth. This is civic engagement.