My grandfather is one of the smartest and wisest people I’ve ever known. When I was young, he would say to me, “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.” These words have been some of the most important throughout my life.
When I was younger, I never really understood what my grandpa’s words meant. As I continue to move through my life, however, I think the importance of his words has finally become clear. Up to this point, I have had a tenuous relationship with school. It wasn’t until I made the decision to go back to school at Eugene Lang College (The New School) that I finally felt as though I was learning something of value in a classroom: I wasn’t learning what to think, I was learning how to think.
Prior to that, I spent six years in and out of colleges, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t wasting my time, that I was actually learning something valuable. I consistently felt as though I was learning more from working and coping with experiences in my life outside of school. The education I continue to receive from traveling, employment, learning to manage my own finances, coping with losses, fixing my own mistakes, getting lost and finding my way, and taking risks is what has allowed me to gain the valuable experience and knowledge to see the world through my own eyes—not someone else’s.
One of the projects I’m working on in Cambodia is building a marketing plan for a trekking tour company. The founders of Koh Ker Treks, Ty and Dieb, are two students that graduated from secondary school (Grade 9) and with the help of the Ponheary Ly Foundation, started their own trekking company in their home village of Koh Ker. Ty and Dieb were the first students in their village to finish 9th grade, the highest level of education available to them in this specific region of rural Cambodia.
I can’t imagine that after Grade 9 I would have been capable of starting my own business, let alone doing it successfully (not to mention how quickly I would be discredited due to my lack of degrees and schooling). It’s frustrating to live in a world that is so professionalized and institutionalized that creativity and hard work cannot be taken seriously unless someone has a formal degree (or multiple degrees). Experiential knowledge or overcoming serious challenges does not seem to carry much weight.
Ty and Dieb have backgrounds that are incredibly different from mine, but I would argue that their life experiences of conquering adversity have provided them with extreme adaptability, ambition, and determination; ways of being in the world which are not easily taught. They grew up in a rural village and have encountered the legacy of violence and civil conflict since they were small. They spent their childhood days foraging for food in the forest in order to survive, not in classrooms learning about geography and algebra. I thought I would be coming here to teach them some basic marketing strategies, but they are the ones that have reaffirmed my understanding of education as a daily experience—we learn through living. There is not a traditional teacher/student relationship here; we are learning equally from each other.
The more I interact with Cambodia’s youth, the more infuriating the lack of educational opportunities becomes. I know this seems like an obvious thing to be disturbed by, but it is different to see the struggles and blatant disregard for children and youth in Cambodia firsthand as opposed to reading about it in New York. I cannot even fathom the incredible changes that could happen in Cambodia if the young generation were granted the same opportunities to combine their life experiences and everyday education with the resources and technical knowledge for formal schooling. Instead of having authoritarian politicians running the government and “international investors” controlling all aspects of the economy (tourism, healthcare, education, businesses, etc.), these young Cambodians would be transforming their country to be a place in which THEY want to live, work, and learn. I believe that if given the chance, the youth of this nation WOULD defy the classifications (poor, helpless, lazy, poverty stricken, “developing”) that the international community has placed upon Cambodia. They WOULD (and will) make the world see the Cambodia that I’ve come to know and appreciate immensely; a place full of love, tradition, culture, resilience, activity, art, expression, intelligence, and wisdom.
Before I left for Cambodia, everyone kept asking me what I would be doing there and why I was going. I wasn’t sure what to say before, but now it is clear:
I am getting an education. I am taking the time to understand a misrepresented and exploited part of the world. I am learning SO much from people that don’t have degrees or haven’t spent as many years in school as I have but carry just as much, if not more, knowledge. I am figuring out that most of the “qualified,” “experts,” and “professionals” that place themselves in Cambodia to “teach” and “help,” would have much to gain if they took the time to learn about Cambodia from Khmer people themselves—not from a scholarly journal or book or Angelina Jolie. I am realizing that the majority of the students we came here to work with are teaching us more about life, patience, humility, strength, resilience, adaptability, and courage than any class or lecture ever could.