Twenty-one Randolph-Macon College students recently traveled to Cambodia in conjunction with Cambodian History & Society, a course taught by Asian Studies Professor Todd Munson. Joining them on the trip were Cindy Szadokierski '81, executive director of The Edge, R-MC's four-year career program, and Mathematics Professor David Clark. The trip, one of the college's January Term (J-term) offerings, combined visits to some of the most noteworthy areas of Cambodia, plus community service projects and an overnight stay in a village.
R-MC travelers visited Phnom Penh (the capital), Siem Reap and Battambang, and they toured Choeung Ek, the memorial to the infamous "killing fields" where more than a million people died in the 1970s under the Khmer Rouge regime. In addition, travelers explored Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world.
"This journey was very emotional and meaningful," says Munson, director of the Asian Studies program. In addition to the Cambodia trip, Munson has led five J-term trips to Japan.
From Devastation to Hope
This was Szadokierski's 37th trip to Cambodia. In 2006, she and her husband visited the area for the first time. Deeply affected by the devastation they saw, they began helping some of the scores of disadvantaged Cambodian children they met. The Szadokierskis found housing for the children and helped send them to school.
"We sponsor an 18-year-old woman—she was a girl when we met her and her parents 10 years ago—and she is really the 'glue' that keeps us going back to Cambodia," says Szadokierski. "When we met her, she was scavenging in a dump. Because of her, we want to do as much as possible to help Cambodian children."
Collaboration + Re-building
For several years, Szadokierski has collaborated with 100 Pounds of Hope, a Richmond-based non-governmental organization that was started by Amanda Prak, a Khmer Rouge survivor who fled Cambodia in 1975. Separated and put in work camps, Prak and her family didn’t see each other for months. Two of her siblings died during that time, and the rest of the family was reunited in a Thai refugee camp, where they lived for two years before moving to Richmond with the help of a church sponsor.
"Fast forward 15 years," says Szadokierski. "Amanda became a hair stylist, owned two businesses, and then decided she wanted to return to Cambodia to re-build the Raing Kessey Primary School in Battambang, where her father had taught." The school, which houses 450 students in grades 1-8, was in disrepair, with mounds of termites covering its dirt floors. The
R-MC group attended a Buddhist ceremony at the school that honored Prak's parents and the rebuilding of the school.
"It was very emotional for our students to witness the ceremony," says Szadokierski. "They also planted 100 trees at the school—a symbolic and practical way to pay homage to the people of Cambodia." In addition, the group delivered mosquito nets to the village, then mixed concrete and created a playground at the school. At a nearby village in Siem Reap, the group delivered 600 ducks and chicks, which will be used to lay eggs for food and income.
Unique Experiences + Guidance
Taylor Munn '17, a psychology and Asian studies major, was deeply affected by what she saw at Choeung Ek and the killing fields. Meeting a man who had been rescued in 1979 by Vietnamese troops was an experience she'll never forget.
"Hearing his story, and Amanda Prak's story, was eye-opening," she says. "At the killing fields we saw thousands of mass graves, and we could see pieces of clothes and bone fragments still in the ground. At the site, there stands a massive, multi-tiered memorial stupa, which houses over 8,000 skulls from the victims. The first tier holds clothing of the victims. The other tiers hold skulls and other bones found in the graves."
At the 402-acre Angkor Wat, Munn says she felt small as she gazed at the dozens of enormous temples that were built in the 12th century.
"It was visually stunning, and it made me really love Cambodia, because it showed me how rich the culture is," says Munn. "It is amazing to think that these ancient peoples could construct such masterpieces." Her travel experience was made even richer, she says, thanks to the guidance of Munson and Szadokierski.
"It was great to share this experience with Professor Munson and Cindy," she says. "I loved being in the same boat as Professor Munson, since this was his first time in Cambodia as well. I also loved the fact that, because Cindy came with us, we were able to meet Amanda and help out with many charities throughout our adventure."
Cory Fore '17, a communication studies major and Asian studies and religious studies minor, says, "The most significant part of the trip for me was experiencing different aspects of the Cambodian culture and seeing how friendly and upbeat the Cambodian people are, despite the genocide they experienced at the hands of the Khmer Rouge."
In the city of Siem Reap, where Angor Wat is located, students had some "down time," walking around and exploring restaurants and markets. In Battambang, where they spent several nights at a guest house, they awoke one night to the sounds of monks chanting and singing. Someone living next to the guest house had died, and the monks were beginning their 48-hour homage to the deceased.
"In Buddhism, the second someone dies, the monks come to your house and they chant and sing all night long," says Szadokierski. "Our students may not have had a lot of sleep that night, but they experienced a unique event and gained an awareness that you can only achieve when you are immersed in another culture. That is what study abroad is all about."
Shortly after returning from the trip, Szadokierski began working with some of the students to secure summer internships in Cambodia.
Throughout the years, R-MC has had six student interns in Cambodia, where they have helped prepare Cambodian students for entrance exams, applications and interviews for U.S. universities. Interns have also worked at COLT, a non-government organization; in Phnom Penh; and at Pannasastra University.
"I think something that stuck out to our students is that many Cambodians have nothing, yet are happy," says Szadokierski. "They want interaction, they want to speak English. They live in shacks with a dirt floor, no running water and, in many cases, no electricity. Our students came back to R-MC with an appreciation for our own country, but also an appreciation for how others live. That was a sobering realization for all of us."
About January Term
January Term (J-term) is an opportunity for students to study abroad, embark on an internship, or take on-campus courses across the curriculum. J-term makes it possible for students to fully engage for one month in a single subject. This year, 1316 students participated in J-term.