To study in a university for a bachelor’s degree is tough. But, undeniably, moving out from the province where you lived most of your young life and transferring to the busy city of Phnom Penh just to pursue good education is a lot tougher. The pressure laid on the young students’ shoulders doubles. Adapting to changes somehow becomes unbearable. This is why Harpswell Foundation was established. An initiative of an American professor and his daughter, the foundation builds a common home for young women from rural areas who want to pursue higher education in the capital. Say Tola and Srey Kumneth recently visited one of the two dormitories of Harpswell Foundation.
As the wind mildly blows on the curtains of the spacious library at the Harpswell Foundation dormitory, a girl sits alone in the corner, eyes in total focus at the thick book and the computer screen as she takes down notes from both printed and online information sources. She is Sek Leakhena, 23, one of the residents of the all-women dormitory in Teuk Thla. This is her fifth year in the dorm and she’s in the fifth term of her civil engineering degree at Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
“It came from a strong passion to choose this major though my parents tried to convince me to become a teacher instead. I convinced them until they understood my point. I saw the opportunities and the needs of human resources in engineering,” says Ms Leakhena.
“Foreigners keep coming to invest in Cambodia but it’s not enough. So as part of the young generation, we should make a big change.”
Being one of the only two females in a class full of males, Ms Leakhena says she finds strength in her passion. She has easily adapted to the male-dominated environment and has connected well with her classmates.
She emphasises, “There is still a gender barrier. People think women are incapable of doing big things. However, if women can show that she is capable, she will overcome these barriers.”
With the pressure at school, Ms Leakhena feels lucky to have found a home in Harpswell Foundation dormitory. Having lived most of her life in Svay Rieng, it was hard for Ms Leakhena to understand and accept the lifestyle in Phnom Penh. It was through her scholarship at Harpswell Foundation that she found solace.
“Staying here feels like home. All students have schedules to follow – cleaning, library, campus, cooking, studying.”
During weekends, Ms Leakhena and the other residents of the all-female dorm attend leadership trainings and group discussions organised by the foundation.
“I have to attend class on weekend while others take their time to get involved in community activities. With the in-house classes in the dormitory, I learn so much and I get to know more about local and international events.”
She added that aside from the in-house classes, discipline is also widely implemented and observed inside the dormitory. The students are grouped into different teams with different responsibilities.
“You know, I feel that my student life is better because of the support I always get from the foundation. They make my life in PUC and in Phnom Penh more bearable,” says the 23-year old resident.
In another part of the beige-coloured dormitory, Huot Kimhuoy shares similar experiences. She has been a resident of the dormitory for four years now. A native of Kandal province, she is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and food technology at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia.
“With the strong motivation from the senior students and my fondness for science ever since I was in high school, I am surviving in this academic journey. I aim to contribute something to the country through my degree,” says Ms Kimhuoy.
Recalling her journey, Ms Kimhuoy shares that she found it difficult to adjust when she first came to Harpswell Foundation.
“I had to change myself to be able to adapt to the new environment. I learned to accept and do household chores. Though I came from the province, I had never cooked and done any chores at home because I was very focused on my studies. But then I realised that everything the dorm asks us to do is also for our own welfare,” she says.
Expecting a typical dormitory that accepts female university students, it extremely puzzled Ms Kimhouy why student residents were pushed to attend leadership courses and do newspaper analysis inside their second home.
“I was wondering, but then I know that it is important to know what is going on nationally and internationally. Those classes urged me to do more research in order to share something with others.”
It was through the in-house classes at the dorm that Ms Kimhouy started dreaming to become a university teacher after she gets her master’s degree.
The Harpswell Foundation was established in 2006. It aims to help young Cambodian women from rural areas to get proper education in universities in Phnom Penh by giving them a house that is conducive for learning and in-house training courses that go beyond classroom set-up discussions.
Moul Samneang, country director of the foundation in Cambodia, shares that it is Harpswell Foundation’s dream to create the new generation of women leaders who inspire positive social changes.
The foundation was built after Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Alan Lightman and his daughter heard a story in 2003 of a Cambodian lawyer, Chea Veasna, who lived in a six-foot crawl space between the ground and the bottom of the school building where she pursued her studies.
Ms Samneang emphasises that the students inside the Harpswell Foundation are more than just residents. “They are moulded to become great leaders of the future.”
All the students are prohibited from taking two degree programs in two different universities as they have in-house courses to complete at the dormitory.
The foundation now has two dormitories – in Boeung Trabek and Teuk Thla – that house at least 75 women aged 17 to 23.
“To reside here, students have to fulfill some criteria. They need to have good grades, have active participation in social work, have average level of English speaking skills and have clear visions and goals in life.”
Students follow strict rules and are mandated to abide by the rules or risk expulsion and termination of scholarships.
“This is not a place for those who love enjoying life. This is a place for transformation. Students have to adapt to the behaviours of their fellow residents.”
But like a real home, the dorm provides complete meals to the students. It also has laboratories and libraries students can use for their university requirements.
Outstanding graduates also have a chance to study in the US through the US Fellowship Programme.
As Harpswell Foundation continues to welcome female students who have big dreams for their future, the foundation believes it is contributing to the ultimate progress of the nation through women empowerment.
To know more about Harpswell Foundation, visit http://www.harpswellfoundation.org/