On a visit to a local university with some of my students.
At the Harpswell Dormitory and Leadership Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia this summer, I had the opportunity to live and work with thirty-one university-aged women whose work ethic, resilience and care for each other constantly inspired me. Never before had I lived in such close quarters with people who have faced gender discrimination, limited educational opportunities and other challenges from a young age. Each student I worked with modeled for me what hard work and endurance look like; most woke up around 5:30 or 6:00am to study, clean or cook and many went to bed well past midnight. Although I was formally there in a teaching role, in many ways I know I learned just as much from them as they did from me.
The five other summer Leadership Residents and I pose for a photo at a local restaurant.
Harpswell’s mission is to empower young women to become the future leaders of their country by helping them to cultivate leadership, critical thinking and networking skills. All students come from rural areas where there is limited access to quality education. Many have families that cannot afford to send them to Phnom Penh, where university and living costs are high. Figures like Hillary Clinton and Ing Kantha Phavi, the Cambodian Minister of Women’s Affairs, have praised Harpswell for its work in supporting intelligent young women to pursue higher education, study abroad opportunities and leadership positions they may not have had access to otherwise.
My students taught me how to dream big.
In a Gender and Development class I took this spring, I learned to become critical of the way empowerment has become a buzzword in the NGO world; empowering women is not an end in itself, a goal to reach in order to pull developing countries out of poverty or to equalize the number of men and women that hold seats in national parliaments. No, empowerment is a process, a realization over time that you have the power and potential to reach your goals regardless of the institutional biases that may stand in your way. This became crystal-clear for me at Harpswell, where I was taught what facing your fears and challenging yourself can produce.
A student faces her fear of climbing to the top of a rock wall.
There were countless moments in which I witnessed what I call “everyday empowerment.” Reading six pages of a Goosebumps book in one hour was a huge accomplishment for one student, who patiently worked with me to make sure she pronounced each word in English correctly. At a local rock-climbing wall, one student conquered her fear of climbing to the top with the encouragement of her peers. And I learned I was capable of biking around a new city where traffic rules are essentially nonexistent. In each of these moments, I observed in myself and others what the process of empowerment looks like and how rewarding it can be to conquer your fears head on. I hope to return to Cambodia someday soon to visit the girls who inspired me in so many ways to view empowerment not as an end but as a beginning.
A tearful goodbye.