Bowdoin has decided to end its partnership with the Harpswell Foundation—an organization that seeks to empower young women in Cambodia through education—at the end of this academic year in order to allocate money elsewhere. Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood confirmed the change. 

Both the Bowdoin and Harpswell students involved with the program have expressed disappointment since hearing the decision, noting that the exchange brings a unique global perspective to campus and provides access to education that is otherwise unattainable for women in Cambodia. Juliet Eyraud ’16, a former tutor for the program, created a petition that gathered 250 student signatures encouraging the administration to continue its partnership with the Foundation and sent it to President Clayton Rose over Winter Break. 

Since 2011, the program has brought two Cambodian women to the College each year on full scholarships provided by the College. They have received support from the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) and the Office of Off-Campus Study. 

Hood was not involved in the decision-making process and had no knowledge of the petition that Eyraud sent to Rose. Hood noted that the exchange has been re-evaluated by the College on a yearly basis since the relationship began in 2011 under former President Barry Mills. According to Hood, Rose wanted a chance to evaluate the program himself. Rose could not be reached for comment. 

In a phone interview with the Orient, Executive Director of the Harpswell Foundation Alison Pavia called the decision “very disappointing” from the Foundation’s perspective, but both Pavia and Founder of the Harpswell Foundation Alan Lightman said they respect the result of the College’s cost-benefit analysis. 

Hood stressed that the decision was primarily a budgetary one and not a reflection of the Cambodian students’ contributions to campus. The College, Foundation and students all emphasized that the exchange has been valuable for all parties. 

Though not given as a reason for ending the relationship by Hood, Lightman said the College has expressed concern with the Harpswell students’ English proficiency over the course of the partnership. 

Lightman said that Cambodian students who have spent a year at Bowdoin have gone on to pursue important projects in Cambodia, such as investment management and teaching English to young Cambodian students. He believes that the Bowdoin community has benefited from the exchange program as well. He has appreciated Mills’ and Rose’s support of the partnership.

“These Cambodian students have suffered enormous hardships and obstacles to get where they got,” Lightman said in a phone interview with the Orient. “And they come from a war-torn country, they come from poverty, and I think their life stories—I hope their life stories have been inspiring to the Bowdoin students and community.” 

Harpswell Scholar Keavatey Srun, who was on campus for the 2014-2015 academic year, described her experience at Bowdoin as “life-changing” in a Skype interview with the Orient.  

“In the United States I learned to be open-minded, to step out of my comfort zone and to experience new things, meet new people and learn to communicate, learn to ask for help,” Srun said. 

Another Harpswell Scholar, Sopoan Keo, who spent the 2015-2016 academic year at Bowdoin, was saddened and surprised by the College’s decision. Keo lived in Howell House, participated in an Alternative Spring Break and joined the Asian Students Association (ASA) during her time on campus. 

“I feel I lost something significant,” she said in a Skype interview with the Orient. “You probably might meet a lot of privileged people at Bowdoin … but the girl who got the scholarship or the girl who’s living in Cambodia right now, most of them are underprivileged … And if they could get a scholarship to go to Bowdoin like me, I think it would be the best experience for their life.”

Theo Hurley ’20, a tutor for the Harpswell Harpswell students currently on campus, echoed Keo, saying that the Harpswell students bring a valuable international perspective to campus that would not necessarily be represented on campus without the help of the Foundation. 

Both Keo and Srun, however, experienced issues adjusting to a new environment—in particular the language barrier and living away from home. According to Eyraud, though Harpswell students take classes in English in Cambodia, the style of education differs from that of the classes at Bowdoin. 

“English is not my mother tongue, it’s my second language, so it was a bit hard for me to catch up with the lessons,” Srun said.  “So I would often go to office hours and also had a tutor to help with my lesson and also my English. Though it was challenging, I was very grateful that I had so many people around me to have and support along the way so that I could get through it better.”

“I think definitely a lot of Harpswell students struggle in class, but that’s to be expected, especially … for any first-year student—that’s not that unusual. Obviously the language barrier poses the greatest challenge,” Eyraud added. 

As a result, the College re-evaluated the implementation of the exchange program every year to “ensure a more positive experience for the students,” explained Christine Wintersteen, director of International Programs and Off-Campus Study and the administrative liaison of the partnership between the Foundation and the College. This reevaluation has resulted in an increase in English tutoring and the inclusion of Harpswell students in first-year orientation programming among other changes, according to Wintersteen.

Eyraud said she has noticed that Harpswell students’ English has been better upon coming to campus each year during her four years with the program. English for Multilingual Students Advisor Lisa Flanagan also noted that the students have showed tremendous improvement between their first and second semesters at Bowdoin. 

Still, she noted that the first semester in particular takes a toll on the students psychologically.  

“[In] some ways it may be almost cruel to have put them in an environment where they are so outmatched,” Flanagan said. 

She also said that a school like University of Southern Maine with a dedicated English language bridge program could provide an additional layer of support that Bowdoin does not offer. 

Despite the outcome, Lightman is grateful for Wintersteen and Flanagan’s dedication to the program.

Though both Harpswell and Bowdoin students said they hope the partnership will be renewed in the future, there are currently no plans for reinstatement of the program.

After delivering her petition, Eyraud met with Rose to discuss Bowdoin’s commitment to making campus more diverse on a global scale. She cited the importance of having socioeconomic diversity within the international student population at the College.  

“It would be awesome if Bowdoin could have a more global campus… [but] President Rose and the admissions team might find that it’s really hard to do without the help of NGOs,” Eyraud said. “If there are students that have similar backgrounds to the Harpswell students that have little access to this type of education, they’re going to need just as much funding.”