This is not your average college setting. There are no raucous parties and no missed 10 am classes because a student sleeps through their alarm.
For the past two months I have lived amongst thirty-four Khmer college women.
These women come from all across the Kingdom of Cambodia, from Battambang province on the Northern Thai border and from Svey Rieng protruding out into Vietnam and from the province of Siem Reap, home to the jungle temples of Angkor.
These women were at the top of their high school classes. They came to Phnom Penh to study in the hopes of becoming lawyers and engineers and doctors and midwives and business women.
My two Khmer roommates wake up at 5:30. They help clean the dorm, motorbike to the local market to purchase the day’s cooking supplies, or cook breakfast for their dorm sisters. At 7:30, having been up for hours already, they are off to class.
Their fathers and mothers are the children of the Khmer Rouge, the ones who’s own education was interrupted. These womens' parents are proud farmers, fishermen, bakers, market fruit sellers. These parents, from across the twenty-four provinces, hold their daughters' education on a par with that of their sons – a view that is not yet ubiquitous.
After university classes, they return to our dorm for supplemental classes and informal conversations in the afternoons and evenings.
Late at night I hold classes on figurative language, creative writing, and, for the past month and a half – Shakespeare (more to come soon).
Four times a week two of the women select an article from the Cambodia Daily (one of two English language newspapers in the country) and create a presentation for their peers. They do background research, boil down the main issues and try to solve issues raised by the articles.
They present this– often late at night – to couches filled with their sisters. And then they discuss.
Near midnight last Wednesday my dorm room was filled with women preparing and discussing and organizing their presentations. One of my Khmer roommates discussed the Khmer Rouge employees continuing demands to be paid their salaries with two others on the floor. Simultaneously, three of us huddled around my bed analyzing the challenges that Japanese land investments in Burma pose to local farmers. .
Between classes, we laugh a lot. I share American idioms with my dorm-mates and they teach me Khmer tongue twisters. I now know what to say if I ever see a pregnant spider spit poison in the forest. (Ping peang pong penh pous pruah per penh prey.)
We sit on mats on the floor eating bowls of rice with a fried fish, or cabbage salad, or sauted chicken liver and chicken feet. On occasion I have lent a hand in the kitchen – setting the gaggle of girls who came to watch (not believing I could cook for thirty-four) to chopping mangoes and red peppers and cubing hunks of pork. Apparently the dish – despite all the dubious predictions – was a success.
I stay up late discussing the Vietnam War with my roommate, and I wake up early on Sunday mornings to join in traditional Apsara dancing with a small collection of women. Together we bend our fingers back and contort our limbs into stylized poses.
The Harpswell Foundation created the Boeng Trabek dormitory, the first of two for Cambodian women, back in 2006. Besides providing a living space and a small food stipend, the foundations hopes to cultivate critical thinkers and empowered women.
There are now eighty women in all spread over two dorms.
In all my time living, traveling and teaching in South East Asia I have never met a more intellectually curious and sharp-minded group of young women.
These women are smart, curious, thoughtful, confident and most of all unendingly hardworking.
But occasionally even they need to relax. And so I attempt to infuse a little of the spontaneity of American college experience into the rigor of our Phnom Penh dorm.
I have whisked the girls off to join in one of the outdoor exercise classes held on the public boulevards, we have walked the streets munching steamed corn, and once we adventured out into the night to attend a traditional outdoor Khmer puppet show performance.
One night, a few weeks ago, I called a conference of all the sisters late at night for an “Emergency Meeting.” Confused and curious they abandoned their studies and gathered, filling the couches and spilling out to sit on the floor.
It was exam time and all the women had tests and exams and final papers.
“At my college,” I explained, “when we got to exam time, we often did something absurd and funny to take a break from studying and let our minds relax.”
I pulled out envelopes filled with clues for a scavenger hunt and for the next hour the dorm was brimming with shrieks and laughs and the pounding of many feet as women ran up and down the dorm in search of the answers to riddles.
There may be no bleary-eyed students or booze, but in the end they are still young women: even future leaders of a struggling nation need time to do something silly.