Teaching and Learning in Cambodia

cambodia project week

Rather than going to a developing country with sympathy in mind - bring empathy. That’s the overall message given during a preparations meeting for the students going to Cambodia during Project Week. It’s an idea borne from a famous TEDx Talk by Daniela Papi-Thornton, who has spent many years in Cambodia volunteering. In her video, which you can watch here, she describes the pitfalls to voluntourism, where travelers intending to do good in a developing country through volunteer efforts, end up causing further damage and not feeling like they are making a positive impact.

It’s a message that Overlake’s trip leaders want to make sure is heard by the students. Through the years, Overlake has adjusted its program making sure the students attending are getting the education crucial to understanding Cambodia and the needs of the people in the country, rather than just going in blindly and thinking they are helping.

Susan Lin, a learning specialist at Overlake is going to Cambodia for her second time. “This is a big part of what we [adult leaders] try to teach them before we go and that’s why we meet every F day club rotation for the entire school year,” explains Lin. “The leaders’ goals are to impress upon them the history of Cambodia--the Khmer Rouge genocide and its effects still felt to this day. We will have Dave Parson as a guest lecturer for one club session to give us a history lesson on this era. We want our students to participate in “service” as it’s part of the Overlake mission, but to do so in a way that’s responsible and respective of the community they are entering.” 

You could say it’s a way to turn around “service learning” to “learning service,” where instead of imposing the service you feel is needed, you ask questions and listen, so you learn what is truly needed by the people in the developing country. Overlake’s focus when in Cambodia is education.

“Teaching at Overlake Pailin in Cambodia is the main reason we continue this Project Week,” says Lin. “The elementary school was built as a result of former Overlake students fund-raising the amount needed to construct the building. Through the years since, we bring our teenagers back to teach for a week, so we maintain that connection with the school. We travel there every other year. The rest of the time, Overlake in Redmond partially funds the school: we pay the salary of their English teacher, their computers, and electricity.” 

Senior Adam G. is excited to be part of the group this year. He says Cambodia has been on his radar since fifth grade. “I remember Mark Manuel [former director of diversity] teaching us about Overlake's history in Cambodia during a fifth-grade social studies class, and ever since then I've wanted to partake in that Project Week.”

Adam isn’t going to Cambodia with unrealistic expectations of major long-term change. He knows that the impact they may bring may not always be as large as they would like. “Although it may not be as large as we wish, I see a positive long-term impact from our visit. For example, some of the supplies we are donating, like older laptops, will help the educators and administration [at the Cambodia school] more effectively perform their duties and communicate. In the shorter term, I see students coming to school in Cambodia more because of the exciting change in instructors (this is what I've been told by Kent and other leaders). I see all of the Project Week members helping the kids keep their grades up and engaging them more during this time.”

But a Project Week trip, like the one to Cambodia, can have a lasting impact on the volunteers. Adam is already thinking about how to extend his efforts at college. “I'm interested in joining Engineers Without Borders while in college, an organization that does civil infrastructure projects (installing running water, etc) in developing regions throughout the world. I hope that the Cambodia Project Week will help prepare me for those projects.”

To learn more about Overlake’s ongoing support in Cambodia, you are encouraged to attend a banquet on Saturday, May 2 at 6pm in the Campus Center. This is a traditional wrap-up for the Cambodia Project Week members to share with our greater community all the work happening in Pailin.

Additionally, to read about the adventures of the last Cambodia Project Week team, click on this student blog.