Finding A Home IN Higher Education

By Ladika, Susan | International Educator, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

Finding A Home IN Higher Education


Ladika, Susan, International Educator


In Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, girls and women don't pursue higher education in great numbers-but faculty and students from outside the region are changing that and improving their educational opportunities.

IMAGINE BEING SO DETERMINED to get an education that you're willing to live in a crawl space under a building so you can attend university.

While it might seem unfathomable, Alan H Lightman, an adjunct professor of humanities ^^^^^ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recalls visiting Cambodia in the mid-2000s, and meeting a young woman who had gone to law school just a decade before. She and the other female students had nowhere to live during their studies, so they bunked down on wooden planks in the crawl space of a university building. "That's how much they wanted an education," he says.

Lightman was so moved by the tale that he began raising money to build dorms for female university students, opening up a whole new world of possibilities for girls who live nowhere near the capital, Phnom Penh, where all of the country's universities are located. Yet the vast majority of the population lives in the countryside.

For Menghun Kaing, who is spending this school year studying at Bard College in Annandale-onHudson, New York, after graduating this year with a degree in computer science from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the availability of the dorms made all the difference. Without them, "I wouldn't know what to do after high school," she says.

The dorm-building project took root after Lightman created the Harpswell Foundation following a visit to Cambodia in 2003. Women in the small village of Tramung Chrum begged him to build a primary school for their children. "They believed in the power of education," so the foundation built them a school, which opened in 2005.

The following year the foundation built its first dorm in Phnom Penh to house college-age women. A second dorm opened in 2009. Together they house more than 80 young women, giving them a safe, secure place to live. While young men can stay at Buddhist pagodas while they attend university, young women have no comparable alternative.

Demand for such housing is huge. "There are millions of poor girls who need help," Lightman says.

Because there is no way the foundation can help them all, it selects the cream of the crop, visiting about 50 high schools around the country to speak with their top prospects. While many girls have exceptional grades, Lightman relies on one crucial question when deciding who the foundation will assist: "What would you like to do with your life?"

The vast majority of the girls say they would like to get a good job and help their families, and although that is laudable, it's not enough to get them in the door at a Harpswell dorm.

Instead Lightman focuses on those who have a broader perspective, and want to do things such as raising the level of education in Cambodia or fighting sex trafficking or poverty. The girls who are chosen to stay in the dorms "have a vision of helping the whole. That is very rare," he says.

Under the Khmer Rouge, more than 1 rnillion Cambodians were killed in the second half of the 1970s, and others died of malnutrition or disease. Many of those who were killed were well-educated Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge "destroyed all sense of community and civic mindedness, leaving a kind of every-man-for-himself mentality," Lightman says.

The goal of the Harpswell Foundation is "helping the country, not helping the individual student. We try to find agents of change" who can then assist others in their country, creating a multiplier effect, he says.

Spearheading Change Throughout the Region

Cambodia is just one of the countries in Southeast Asia where U.S. universities and professors are trying to inspire change. According to United Nations' statistics, in 2008 only 5 percent of women and 9 percent of men were enrolled in tertiary education in Cambodia. …

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