Student-led Trip to Cambodia Makes a Big Impact

Cade Story-Yetto Leading Group in Singing

Cade Story-Yetto Leading Group in Singing

After working on a cross-cultural educational curriculum for a semester, thirteen student from the Society of Global Citizens club put their plans to work during a two-week trip to Cambodia.

The West Valley students brought with them laptop computers, hygiene products, strings for musical instruments and tinker toys, and took away a priceless perspective on the world. During the winter break, thirteen members of the Society of Global Citizens (SGC), a campus club, went on a service-learning trip to rural Cambodia to implement an educational program at the Doris Dillon School.

“I was already a political science major, but was unsure of what I wanted that major to do,” says Elly Hudson. “Now I know this is my thing: I want to do social justice work not just in my own community but abroad, in the global community.”

“One of our goals is to be ambassadors for Cambodia and to tell everyone what happened there,” says Jacob Bryan, VP of SGC and a bioengineering and math student. “It’s not common knowledge. My mom didn’t know that there was a genocide in Cambodia where a quarter of the population was lost. And also that America played a role in that as well.”

The service-learning project to Cambodia, a nation in Southeast Asia with a population of 16 million, was organized from the bottom-up by students in the SGC—a campus club that organizes service projects in the local community and abroad.

“I was absolutely blown away by the lesson plans [they] put together and the engagement [they] exhibited in the classroom,” says Dr. Tim Kelly, an instructor in the history department, who along with Dr. Andrew Kindon, instructor of anthropology, was a faculty adviser on the trip. “Their sweat, and near heat stroke, working outdoors in the village showed a commitment to hard work that, to be honest, is just far too uncommon in American culture today.”

The project began in the fall semester after Ken Colson, former instructor of anthropology at West Valley, introduced the Doris Dillon school to the SGC and put the club in contact with school representatives in Kep, Cambodia. Club members formed committees in charge of researching and planning a program of activities and lessons in areas such as preschool education, female empowerment, homestead, sports, and storytelling and creative arts.

Because the local Cambodian contact, Sokna Chhin, mentioned that science education was of particular interest to the school, the SGC team spent the semester planning a STEM curriculum for school age children. Bryan, the lead on the STEM curriculum, said the team combed through science education databases to develop hands-on physics and chemistry experiments such as ‘Coke-mentos’—an experiment where Mentos are placed into Coke bottles to produce a chemical reaction that demonstrates the effect of changing states of matter. 

A big challenge for the students was to create a curriculum that was not only appropriate for a wide range of ages, from preschool to eighth grade, but also relevant to students living in a different culture and under vastly different conditions than their own. “It was really important to me that the project of female empowerment be carried over,” says Hudson, the lead for the female empowerment committee. “[But] at first I was worried it wouldn’t be accepted. We were instructed that there was no sexual health education. We accepted that and focused on menstrual health and tried to make it culturally acceptable.”

“Ken had brought up to us that often when girls get their period they drop out of school at high rates,” adds Hudson. “We also saw a statistic that 14% of rural men in Cambodia were illiterate as opposed to 48% of rural women. We looked at this and thought about how we could help the girls stay in school longer.”

To support their lesson plans, the female empowerment group secured donations of reusable handmade menstrual pads from two nonprofits, Days for Girls and Too Little Children, and also printed and transported copies of UNICEF’s ‘Growth and Changes’ booklet translated into Khmer, the local language.

Additionally, the SGC team received donations from other nonprofits and community organizations, including used laptops from West Valley students, soccer balls from Bret Harte Middle School, and funding for the installation of water catchment systems from the Saratoga Rotary Club.

“There was a democratic system for transporting the resources,” says Cade Story-Yetto, a political science major and President of the SGC. “We each had a carry-on bag and a luggage bag and we made everyone sacrifice their luggage bags. It was the first time many students were traveling internationally and they were carrying all their clothes in a little bag!”

Members of the SGC earned points toward the trip for their participation in club activities and were chosen for the two-week trip to Cambodia through an application process. “Everyone in the club cared about the project assuming that they might not be able to go,” says Hudson.

In Cambodia, A Global Perspective

Female Empowerment Group members Hawa Conteh, Sejla Garbo, Elly Hudson, and translators Pa Rothna and Chey Sreylin (Courtesy of SGC)

Female Empowerment Group members

During their first week in Cambodia, students visited the major architectural, religious and cultural sites in the country alongside the Killing Fields and the prison museum Tuol Long. The Killing Fields and Tuol Long are historical sites that register the devastating effects that global restructuring had on the country in the second half of the 20th century, as the Vietnam War extended into Cambodia and power grabs between various fractions ensued in the following two decades (notably a genocide that killed roughly 2 million Cambodians between 1975-1979 under the regime of the Khmer Rouge).

Dr. Tim Kelly provided a historical framing for the group during the trip and Dr. Andrew Kindon held debriefs for students to reflect on what they were learning. “I wasn’t able to finish the entire tour [at the torture center] because it got really heavy. It was very chilling when we went to a specific room that showed you the faces of the victims,” says Hawa Conteh, a business major who was the lead on the child development committee. “But we were able to do a debrief after where I was able to express that to my advisors and to the other members.”

The second week, the group put their lesson plans to the test at the Doris Dillon School, located almost 100 miles from the capital of Phnom Penh near the southern border with Vietnam.

Cade Story-Yetto recalls how the first encounter between the West Valley visitors and locals set a joyful tone for communication across a language barrier. “On the first day, we had a camera crew trying to capture the first cultural exchange and the children’s eyes were all widened and they were very shy,” says Story-Yetto. “So I had to find a way to communicate with them that would make us more comfortable with each other. I was teaching a magnets class and started purposely messing up with the magnets, trying to see if they caught it. They all loved the act and were laughing like crazy.”

“There was a humorous side and a genuine human side to that exchange,” adds Story-Yetto, highlighting the role that West Valley students played at the school throughout the week. 

In a memorable moment the team handed over a dozen laptops with educational resources from the Khan Academy to the faculty. Because there was no Wifi connection at the school, team members figured out how to configure the hardware on the laptops to act like the internet. “When you downloaded the Khan Academy server directly from the internet, it’s pretty simple,” says Jacob Bryan. “But, being able to download it from computer to computer without wifi, you have to configure the server so it can read where to find the videos.”

“We didn’t just configure the laptops but also taught one of the teachers there, Saveng, how to configure his own computers in their lab,” adds Bryan. 

SGC members also worked on community-based projects to install water collecting systems and drought-resistant gardens in the rural villages surrounding the school. “Initially we got a quote for industrial-level water catchment systems [in the United States],” says Cade Story-Yetto. “But when we went to local leaders in Cambodia, we got a quote for locally-sourced systems that was far lower. We now estimate that the funds we received from the Saratoga Rotary Club will provide water catchment and storage systems for every family in the Doris Dillon school.”

It was not always clear how, in the end, the students and staff at the Doris Dillon school would receive the West Valley students and their advisors. “I was a bit skeptical about this learning service trip,” says Dr. Kelly. “Certainly I knew that it would benefit students to interact with a different culture, but would it be helpful to come into their classrooms, or would it be disruptive?”

“I soon found out the answer as I watched the smiles and expressions of excitement on the faces of those school kids,” says Dr. Kelly.

Many of the participants agreed that the most important part of the exchange was a new perspective on the world they inherit and commitment to shaping its future. “There are still US mines left over from the war and they don’t know where they are. Some people still get blown up on the border of Vietnam,” says Jacob Bryan. “For me, and for the whole team, we will be able to communicate that to Americas and let it be known that Cambodia went through an injustice and they still need our help.”

“We didn’t do something holy for these people,” says Hamidatu Hamid, a West Valley student who recently transferred to San Jose State University to study nursing. “Their lives were amazing before we got there and they’ll keep being amazing after. It was more of a learning experience for me than for them. It’s definitely gonna resonate in my mind.”

Service-Learning at West Valley

The college has made an investment in service learning over the past year with the establishment of a new Service-Learning Institute (SLI), which helps facilitate projects in the local community and abroad.

“The students of SGC have shown us that service-learning has a powerful effect on education,” says Brad Weisberg, Dean of Workforce Development and SLI committee member. “Their experience, coupled with data on how students with international experience sharpen their employability skills and are more successful in the workplace, is spurring efforts to integrate service-learning projects into the existing curriculum so more of our students can participate.”

Service-learning makes it possible for students to gain experience in real world applications within a framework of community engagement and civic responsibility. It also asks students to troubleshoot problems with other students who might see a problem from a different angle. “In engineering, we are trained to think about problems and solutions to those problems in a purely logical way,” says Jacob Bryan. “In political science there are a lot of answers. It matters how you were brought up and where you were brought up. I enjoy that too. It’s fun to find that one solution, but it’s also interesting to debate solutions.”

For some students, the service-learning trip to Cambodia helped clarify and solidify career paths. Elly Hudson, who came to West Valley after one semester at a four-year college, is now waiting to hear back on acceptances from UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, where she plans to concentrate on social justice concerns in her major. “I was kind of nervous transferring back home to a community college because I thought I was taking a step back,” says Hudson. “I figured out I wasn’t. There are so many opportunities here at West Valley to launch your career and help you along the way.”

Hamidatu Hamid and Hawa Conteh, both children of immigrants from Sierra Leone, said that the experience of working with the Cambodian students motivates them to work harder. “We [in America] take education for granted so so much,” says Hamid, who dreams of working as a nurse in the military and later with the United Nations. “[The trip] made me realize that I needed to be like these kids and be eager to learn and open to new opportunities.”

Conteh, who hopes to transfer to Howard University in the fall, says that the experience has helped steer her toward studying international business. “It’s very important to have an understanding of what’s going on in the economies around the world.”

Cade Story-Yetto, who took the lead on many administrative tasks—including pulling together a Risk Management plan that needed to pass a district-level audit on student safety—says that service-learning empowers students to be active participants rather than passive receivers of education. “It has given me the opportunity to uproot my passion and start creating action and change because tomorrow is not guaranteed.” Story-Yetto intends to run for public office in his hometown after graduating from college.

Students interested in getting involved in service-learning activities on campus should contact SLI committee members Dr. Andrew Kindon and Dr. Tim Kelly.

March 15, 2019

Last Updated 4/29/21