Over winter break, a group of seven students from the Study of Cambodian Life chose to participate in an alternative winter break where they took a trip to Cambodia to explore the culture and life of a Cambodian.
For the UMW Cambodia Study Abroad Program, the Study of Cambodian Life, the main goal was to study the Cambodian culture and get an overview of their issues, history, people, food and environment.
“Cambodia is very different from the U.S. in economy, culture, politics and obviously linguistics. I think that people get to see the sorts of things they never see in the U.S.,” said Professor Donald Rallis, associate professor of geography, and the professor of the course.
Each day, students took turns writing a blog post on UMW blogs. Students wrote about their day-to-day experiences and explained what they learned from them.
“We had to blog about our day or an aspect of Cambodia that was interesting. We had to write about a moment that helped clarify some aspect of Cambodia that we didn’t understand before,” said Bobby Tillett, a senior at Mary Washington who went on the trip.
Hannah Carloni, a senior added, “Every night we met for 30 minutes or for dinner and talked about what we had seen and the places we went if we had a free day.” For Carloni, this time was something she looked forward to, because she loved sharing her own stories.
“I’m glad I knew a lot about Cambodia before I went. An important thing to do before going to another country is to learn about the country,” said Carloni. “It makes the experience better.”
While visiting these places was still a culture shock to her in many ways, it was less of a surprise since she knew a lot about the culture before the trip.
The students also went to the Peace Corps on site headquarters, the S21 torture camp/prison from the Khmer Rouge genocide, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap.
“We’ve been doing Southeast Asia programs for many years. All programs have the same basic objective, to help students see the world from a different perspective,” said Rallis.
“Each perspective looks different depending on where you look at it from, and any is valuable,” Rallis added.
“It is so much different than what you expect,” said Tillett. Even after a horrible genocide, “[Cambodians] are always looking forward. It is so resilient.
Cambodia can be a tourist destination too said Rallis. “Cambodia is an easy place to visit,” he said. “It is safe, friendly, and the violent crime rate is lower than the U.S.”
Rallis added that you could be in an alien environment, but still not feel threatened.
As a tourist, “There were a lot of things that pull at you,” Carloni said. “I didn’t want to be the stereotypical tourist, but I sort of had to be.”
Although Carloni was a foreigner, she attempted to keep her tourist curiosity to a minimum.
“I tried to be conscious of it,” said Carloni.
However, since learning about Cambodia and its culture was the ultimate goal for these students, Rallis said, “How can you learn about poverty without being a slumdog tourist? An important aspect is that this was an academic course, not a vacation. We visited to learn, which also happened to be fun.”
Tillett said he learned much about the country from the class. “In Cambodia, you can’t call life simple. It’s something that is just different, and you can actually see the hard work you’re doing,” he said. “It is a once in a lifetime experience. It is something you must do, even if it is not with this program,” said Tillett.
Tillett encouraged other students to participate in the program.
“You just need to travel,” Tilett said. “Learn about yourself, even if where you go and what you do is uncomfortable. Traveling is the greatest learning experience.”