Written by Amelia Lim, year 4 sociology undergraduate in NUS
For university students, international student exchange programmes are familiar and popular among many. Stories, both funny and frightening, are shared and spread through blogs, social media and mutual friends. Most of us, however, do not hear as much about international internships, even though they are enriching and exhilarating experiences as well. Follow Amelia, a 3rd Year Sociology student, as she recounts the many highs and lows of her internship with Family Care Cambodia (FCC).
In December 2016, I embarked on my first 5 weeks-long overseas internship, teaching English and assisting with curriculum planning at a Learning Center in Kampong Speu, Cambodia. I chose this internship for 3 main reasons – First, it fit my schedule; Second, I was interested in learning more about sustainable community building in overseas non-government organisations; and lastly, I wanted to head out of Singapore for a quick breather, and if I can value-add to a community in the process – why not?
Of course, when I told my parents I wanted to go for this internship, they protested vehemently. They weren’t very supportive and their concerns worried me too. They told me stories about people getting assaulted, belongings getting stolen…as if people living in third world countries were all criminals. As much as I disliked stereotyping, these were the kind of images that have been fed to us by the media.
I was also concerned if my help was really value adding to the community. Was it increasing their dependence on outsiders, or fueling volun-tourism? I looked up the organisation online and found that they had a substantial web presence, with detailed documentation of their activities. The FCC also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian Government, hence I trusted the organization and decided to embark on the internship. Eventually, this became a decision I never regretted!
Kampong Speu was an hour and thirty minutes’ drive away from the city center Phnom Penh. Ann, one of the founders of FCC, picked me up from the Phnom Penh International Airport. She shared with me more on her job responsibilities and how the organisation started, which made me less nervous. She knew what she wanted to do since she was 11, which was to help the poor and needy. After completing her studies in early childhood education in the United States, she volunteered her services in Thailand for 23 years, before heading to Cambodia for another 10 years, setting up a few learning centers in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
The Learning Center in Kampong Speu had a room specially for international volunteeers to stay in. Hence, the community was used to having outsiders come and go. The facilities were pretty decent, with a proper bathroom, a cupboard, small dressing table, 3 beds and our own water tank. The facilities were much better than those of a previous Overseas Community Involvement Programmed I embarked on, where we slept on the floors of a classroom and showered in bathrooms which didn’t have showerheads. As a result, I didn’t have much difficulty adjusting, despite the dusty and dry weather.
As it was my first-time teaching in a classroom setting, I was thankful that most of the students were rather cooperative. As the local school teachers are underpaid, the lessons are not as structured as compared to Singapore’s. Students attended morning classes on one week, and afternoon classes on the following week. The timetable changes weekly and hence, we have morning and afternoon sessions every day to cater to all the students.
During the morning classes, I taught with a Cambodian teacher using his own curriculum. For the evening classes, I only had one textbook to use as teaching material. In the end, I used PowerPoint slides and some grammar exercises I found online to teach as well. There were a few inattentive students who always played soccer, but attendance improved after I introduced some games that allowed them to win prizes. I struggled with those restless students for a while and tried my best to engage them. The evening classes only lasted for forty-five minutes and I had to make the best out of it by teaching those who were paying attention and eager to learn.
I was glad to be able to converse with the Cambodian teachers as they all had a basic command of the English language. I saw it as a sign of sustainable community building, where the Learning Center was able to function by itself without relying too much on volunteers. The students here could speak English as well, and this helped very much with communication.
Outside the classroom
Besides teaching the students, I also enjoyed having conversations with the people here about their way of life, culture and aspirations. It made me realize that we have more similarities than we initially thought we had. Those were truly precious moments, when we talked about the things we hoped to achieve, and the challenges that we faced and how have we can overcome them. Mr Raksa, a local who started the Learning Center, shared with me stories about the beginnings of the Learning Center, how it grew, and his hopes to expand and help children who live in the outskirts. We helped him to draft up a curriculum for pre-school kids as he hopes to standardise it, educate them, and hope that they will help others in future as well.
During the weekends, we travelled out to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I enjoyed travelling out because there’s not much to do in the learning center during the weekends, as the markets are mostly closed. Together with another intern, we spent a night at Phnom Penh. I also travelled with her family to Siem Reap, visiting Angkor Wat and Pubstreet!
I enjoyed my experience in Cambodia immensely, and I would definitely recommend other students to check out these internship opportunities! For more information on international internships, check out the NUS International Relationships Office at www.nus.edu.sg/IRO/.
If you’re thinking about embarking on an overseas internship, here are some tips and pointers for you:
- Research about the organisation you’re applying for: Read up the news related to the organisation, what they have been doing and what people say about them to help you assess if the organisation suits you.
- Financial concerns: Depending on where you are headed, the costs and transactions for the internship will vary. I paid 150USD/week to stay at the learning center, with all meals provided. All excess funds went to the maintenance and improvement of the learning center. NUS helped to offset half my expenses after I applied for IE-YTP and NUS International Internships Award – do check out the financial aid portal for available funding! Also, if you’re paying to stay, remember to ask where those excess funds go to, to makes sure it’s accounted for.
- Location – If it’s a little out of the way, you can request for the host organisation to pick you up!
- It’s helpful to always keep in touch with the news in the country – the political happenings and natural disasters that may affect your trip.
- Make friends and be open, and if possible you can ask the locals to bring you around too!
With Mr Raksa, the director of the Learning Center
Ann and Alex, the founders of Family Care Cambodia
All Photos Courtesy of Amelia Lim