Half way over…

March 3, 2011 | Erica, DVM Program, Intern, Cambodia, The Center of Foreigh Languages (Generail English Program), IIC university of Technology, Rector's Assistant

The internship placement is now over half way completed. It took about three weeks to really get my head around what I was expected to do, to become comfortable with my colleagues and students and to understand how I could work in this setting. With the help of others, I was able to understand how the university was organized and what was preventing it from being a stronger institution and offering higher quality education to its students. From here, I managed what my supervisor wanted me to work on and other projects that I believed would make a significant difference in the short term and that I could successfully implement. This resulted in having multiple projects related to capacity building that I would work on throughout the term.

Education in Cambodia is not standardized very well. It is difficult to assess the quality of education of any institution, especially the private institutions, because of a lack of standard measurements and administrative capacities as well as the ability to buy (bribe for) grades. Private universities are a popular choice when creating a new business because of the ease of defining one’s own rules in such an institution along with the freedom of bureaucratic regulations. There are large returns in this business with a culture so keen on becoming educated and so easy to exploit, especially when they pay from their shallow pockets even for the risk of a below average education.

I was very grateful to have an internship where I could see change happen within my time here. Most of the projects I am working on will be implemented for the first time during my stay and my contributions involve being part of that progression. I felt very good that I could physically and practically contribute to change, but then the more I watched and listened, the more I wondered about the significance of it all. I began to become concerned over the broader reality of Cambodia’s education system and hesitant that my miniscule decisions could influence broader change or if my ideas were even appropriate for such a context.

Only 7% of children attend post-secondary education, a number that does not in any way imply how many students are getting a good education. It’s another matter defining what good actually means in this sense, which should be thought about and reflected on carefully. A minimum level of quality in education requires institutionalization, but it is this sort of bureaucracy that adds cost to education and risks imposing technocratic methods that aren’t necessarily suitable for a developing country. I have tried to balance what I know from my culture and what I see here in my placement to provide solutions to some of the problems within the IIC or, at the very least, to increase opportunities for students.

But I fear that, from my work and presence here, staff and students alike will retain a skewed perception of what education can mean. They will remember a western perception of education and look towards it with aspiration as too many Cambodians already do. I often have students ask me about how education works in Canada; they are keen to compare and quick to realize what they do not have in comparison to others. Maybe this is positive, but not when they are only dreaming to have the same education as other societies instead of using the knowledge as a tool to analyze why and how their own system is flawed. This is the time and the generation, I believe, that Cambodians really need to think for themselves. They have the ability to take what they understand about education in their own country and abroad and to decide how to make it work for them.

One of the tasks I decided to do during the internship was write out an employment contract to use for the teachers in the Centre of Foreign Languages. It is a recurring problem that teachers resign from their jobs in the middle of a term and do not give any notice. I explained to my supervisor what I was planning on doing and he asked if he could find me a temple online to copy and use. I was fairly shocked. My readiness to learn what the CFL needed for an appropriate contract for their office and design it to their needs was not a consideration to my supervisor and he did not understand how I would go about writing that contract without a template to copy. Come to think of it, the Department Head beforehand also said he would look for a contract used at another school, but I initially thought it was to stimulate ideas or use for comparison; perhaps that wasn’t the case. I see this example as a microcosm of how Cambodia approaches education in general.

These perceptions are a result of social, political and historical circumstances that have come to define Cambodian education. For instance, after the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s scholars and education system had been wiped out. They have started from scratch with a public education system that does not adequately teach them how to think critically. This will be a major challenge for today’s youth of Cambodia. They cannot rely on simply mimicking the ideas of outsiders, or having international aid and volunteers to show them what to do. They want education and opportunity and jobs, and they have the will and intelligence to attain those things for themselves… if they can think of how to do it.

This is something I cannot change, but I try in small ways. With the projects I do here, including teaching two English classes, I try to emphasize the importance of not relying on others. I repeat that my work is not complete unless the projects can continue after I leave and when I am not needed. I try to teach the students how to speak without looking at the book, to think about answers and not to read answers. It is this message that I hope passes on to others, rather than the models I give for the work I am doing.

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