By Ouk Suntharoth,
© Suon Chamnan/2018
Coming from a low-income family, Suon Chamnan faced many hardships that some people couldn’t imagine. After getting her high school diploma, she thought that she wouldn’t be able to get any higher education due to poverty.
She had thought of giving up her academic journey in order to look for a job to support her family. Fortunately, she received a scholarship from Paññasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). This way, she was able to continue her studies and eventually receive the scholarship from SHE-CAN—a non-profit organization based in San Francisco that aims to help potential female students from post-conflict countries by giving full scholarships to study in the United States.
From this short description, you may still wonder what her hardships were, how she got the SHE-CAN scholarship and what her plan is after graduation? To answer these questions, I got in touch with Chamnan whose life journey is an inspiration to me, and hopefully to you after you finish reading this blog post.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about yourself, so the readers can get a glimpse of who you are?
I was born and raised in Phnom Penh and I come from a family of four.
As for my educational background, I went to Daun Penh Primary School and Preah Sisowath High School. At the time, I thought that I could not get into college due to my inability to pay the college fees. Luckily, I received a scholarship from PUC and was able to start my college life.
As a person who almost had to give up education due to poverty, I always want to help children to get access to education.
Q: What were the struggles you faced growing up in a poor family?
If you ask what struggles I faced while growing up were, I would say it was the fact that my mom and dad lived separately due to family conflict. My younger sister and I lived with our mom who bore the responsibility of being both a mom and a dad to us. She worked many jobs ranging from being a street vendor to a chef in order to earn income for our family, and we had to move from one place to another because we didn’t have enough money for the rental fees.
I started to work since I was in eighth grade. The last job I had was a barista in a coffee shop. Unfortunately, when I was a freshman at PUC, I got into a traffic accident and underwent a brain surgery.
Q: How did you get SHE-CAN? Were there any obstacles? If so, how did you overcome them?
It all started in my sophomore year when I saw a poster about SHE-CAN scholarship program on my school’s information board. I was so attracted by the program’s name and their mission of helping young women from post-conflict countries to get better education and come back to help their communities. I think their mission matched my idea of wanting to help my society and my next generation. So I gave it a try and applied for the SHE-CAN program.
After becoming a SHE-CAN candidate with five other candidates, we were placed in English preparations courses for IELTS and ACT tests (which is a standardized test used for college admission in the US and mainly focuses on five main areas: English, Math, Reading, Writing and Science) At the same time, each of us needed to execute a Take The Lead Project. I was also trying to catch up with my lessons and exams at PUC. So, it was a very challenging time for me to keep track of everything.
For instance, on the first try, I got a very low band score on my IELTS mock test. However, I did not give up and gave my all into practicing many times. Then, on the actual exam day, I was able to get a 7 band score on the test. And the same process happened to my ACT test. So I think practice makes perfect, and when I kept myself motivated and focused on my goal, I could make the impossible things become possible. As a result, I passed the next stage [of the program] and officially became a SHE-CAN scholar.
Q: What major are you taking? How are your life and studies in the States? Are there any hardships?
I haven’t declared my major and minor yet since I am a freshman. At Beloit College, students get to declare their major before the end of their sophomore year. However, I am thinking of majoring in Business Economics.
As an international student, I find it challenging. Everything is all new. The United States’ culture is different from Cambodia’s culture, and the way people communicate and express their opinions are also different from home. The weather is also different, and even the food is different. All of these differences make me feel homesick. I have been here for less than two months, so I am still settling in and adjusting myself with all these new experiences. So what I do to help me feel comfortable is to be more open-minded and respect individual’s opinions, and sometimes I think I don’t need to force myself to ‘fit in’ because it will only make me feel more uncomfortable, frustrated, and homesick.
And instead of being afraid of new things, I become adventurous and excited. Even though I am an international student who went far away from home, I am able to create ‘my own world’ here. I learn to communicate and be with people who share the same interests as me. In addition, there are a lot of resources on campus that I can reach out to whenever I have any issues academically, physically and mentally. And because of the technology advancement, I can call to my family and see their faces from a thousand miles away from home. I also have my mentors here in the U.S. with me. Even though they don’t live in the same state as me, we usually have a check-in call from time to time. They make me feel that I am not alone and that there is always someone who supports me mentally and academically.
Q: Do you have any message for other people who are facing the problems you had gone through?
“There’s always a way if there’s a will.” This is what I keep telling myself everyday. If I wasn’t brave enough to give it a try to apply to the scholarship program, I, an ordinary girl grew up in a low-income family, wouldn’t be here in the United States getting a chance to obtain a higher education.
Every journey starts with the first step, so be brave to take that first step. It is normal that life is not easy, and if life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and if life gives you salt, use that salt as an ingredient for your food. Don’t compare yourself with others and then belittle yourself, but rather, tell yourself that you’re the owner of your life, and for you to be here at this point in life is something that you should be proud of. And you should make [your life] better and better.
Remember that no one really makes decisions for your life and how it should end up to be except you. So don’t give up, be strong, and move forward to your goal in life.
Having the chance to talk with Chamnan about her struggles prior to the moment she received the SHE-CAN Scholarship was an eye-opening experience for me and hopefully to you as well. She has always been an admirable individual due to her perseverance and optimism towards the obstacles she had faced. I believe as human beings, we are all dealing with different issues; therefore, after reading this blog post, I hope you are motivated and will not give up easily. Remember that after every storm, there is a rainbow!
Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.