Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) of Rochester, MN made its first effort towards an effective, service learning based, study abroad program by leading a group of 14 students to Cambodia over Christmas break. The purpose of the course was to study Intercultural Communication. However, more importantly, the focus was the student’s corresponding service learning projects, all designed to help certain Cambodian orphanages and schools while increasing awareness between Americans and Cambodians. Through their course and project(s), RCTC students uniquely experienced first-hand the many facets of international education and communication, and, with a cheerful willingness, in their own small way helped further an integrated, educated global community.
RCTC students were challenged to develop and implement sustainable service learning projects for Cambodia. Last year, an RCTC contingent, as guests of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), traveled throughout Cambodia, interviewing teachers, village leaders, and students as to what was needed–how RCTC could contribute to sustainable development, while helping create and further the global community. This year, RCTC used feedback from their previous trip to work with a dynamic NGO, Youth Services of Cambodia. Youth Services of Cambodia is an NGO created entirely by students of RUPP, and led by their President, Roeun Ran (email@example.com (855)-012-577-331). Ran said that the first task of the NGO (around 50 students), which received a grant from the Ford Foundation of $2,400, is an “elementary enhancement of six primary schools.” But first the NGO attempts to create among the students of RUPP a strong sense of community and global spirit. As Ran mentioned, “We try to raise awareness and spirit among the students of RUPP, who are often privileged students, some having never having left Phnom Penh, about real problems that exist in Cambodian rural communities. We ask village leaders and teachers what the students of RUPP may do to initiate and further sustainable projects of improvement in the villages.”
To accomplish this, RCTC together with the NGO, participated in a beautification project by planting flowers and trees around a village primary school. Youth Services of Cambodia helps villages by picking up trash, installing water purifiers, supplying garbage bins, marching down the streets of Phnom Penh and villages encouraging citizens not to litter, and providing charity projects for children in Phnom Penh’s garbage dumps.
Individual RCTC student projects included one young woman who raised money for modern toilets and a well (many girls quit school, embarrassed from lacking privacy when they begin menstruating); another student worked to connect Cambodian school children with an American class that made a book of what life in America is about, and, in turn having Cambodian kids create a book representing life in Cambodia to bring back to American school children; another student project investigated the sex trade in Cambodia.
RCTC found that international education begins in the classroom with ideas and grant proposals, but it must transfer outside of the classroom to help connect and improve societies for the better in a diplomatic, sustainable way through intimate intercultural communication and a good deal of sweat. This involves working with those whom one intends to serve, listening and learning about their needs, wants, and dreams, then lending one’s expertise. The relationship must be long term for any project to be sustainable and fruitful. Carefully nurtured service learning is one avenue of international education which furthers this goal. RCTC will certainly continue to build its program.
Of course, not the entirety of the trip was service learning and intercultural communication, at least of the variety described above. RCTC students were able to travel throughout Cambodia and see up close the many wonders this land and culture holds. Students were able to walk and climb the ruins of the wondrous temple, the largest religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat, where Buddhist mystics sit in enclaves and will tell you your life’s fortune and direction for a small fee. It was interesting to notice, too, the Banyan tree which grows seemingly from the top down in and out of the high walls of the temple. And seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat at 6:00am is a spiritually calming or challenging experience–one of breathtaking beauty.
From breathtaking beauty to breathtaking horror, one can visit Tueol Sleng (a former high school converted into a prison and torture chamber by the khmer Rouge from 1975-79), or visit the “Killing Fields” themselves and see the seven story monument of skulls, and walk along paths where human bones and clothes of those buried by the Khmer Rouge butchers (1975-79) are beginning to surface because of natural erosion and tourists walking. As you can gather, Cambodia is a land of contrasts.
The American dollar goes far in Cambodia; a very comfortable and accommodating hotel will cost perhaps 15-20 dollars a night. During the day, shops of all varieties–garments, trinkets, exquisite handmade items (swords of teak-wood, etc.), and of course the unique and flavorful food in restaurants–is all available for very reasonable prices. The night life of Phnom Penh is relaxed–take a tuk-tuk ride (a motorcycle pulling a cart) with your sweetheart or friend along the Mekong river, explore the many nightclubs, or, if you have had a hard day opt for an hour, full-body massage for five dollars.
Certainly our students’ learned a great deal about Cambodia, its culture, and its history. But visiting a foreign land and truly learning intercultural communication means jumping in the water (or rice paddy) feet first, and having fun. Service-learning study abroad trips offer an affordable means to do so.