Snow, Daylight Savings Time and Thanksgiving are a few familiar things for most Bowdoin students, but complete novelties for exchange students Sivgech Chheng and Chandy Eng. Having spent the past year here pursuing post-graduate studies, Chheng and Eng are the third pair of women to study at Bowdoin as part of the College’s partnership with an organization located in Cambodia called the Harpswell Foundation.

Founded in 2005 by Alan Lightman, the Harpswell Foundation provides free housing and university scholarships to a select group of intelligent, and highly-motivated Cambodian women to attend college in Phnom Penh. 

By supporting their education and instructing classes related to critical thinking and leadership, Harpswell hopes to inspire and empower these women to become future leaders of their nation.
Christine Wintersteen, director of international programs and off campus study, is one of the coordinators of the College’s partnership with the foundation and said that this collaboration works well with Bowdoin’s commitment to the Common Good. Every summer it gives one Bowdoin student the chance to work at the foundation as a leadership resident.

“This is definitely trying to broaden the impact we have on the Common Good, not just domestically but globally,” Wintersteen said.

Juliet Eyraud ’16, last year’s summer leadership resident, taught classes in English and international affairs, and tutored Harpswell students, including Chheng and Eng. As the Cambodian education system stressed memorization, many of her students had little experience expressing themselves creatively or thinking critically. Eyraud said that living alongside them enhanced their classroom experience in those areas.

“The idea of living with the students I was teaching really allowed for closer connections than I would have had if I were just going somewhere and teaching students that I didn’t know as well,” she said.

She enjoyed seeing her students learn to question the world around them, including aspects of their own culture.

“Women are traditionally taught to be very subversive…A lot of times, in the current affairs discussions—and also just in English classes—they talk about how they’ve started questioning [this tradition] and a lot of them are also involved in a lot of female empowerment [groups],” she said.

 Despite cultural norms, both of Chheng’s and Eng’s families supported their aspirations to go to college. Eng said that her father never stopped encouraging her to study.

“One thing that really touched my heart, he kept saying like when he walks, he wants me to have a bike; and when he has a bike, he want me to have a moto; and when he has a moto, he wants me to have a car; and when he has a car, he wants me to fly. And he did it,” she said. “He really did it through education.”

Eyraud described how powerful it was to be surrounded by women who opted to become educated but who also supported one another, never creating a competitive environment.
“They’re so humble,” she said. “They’re brilliant people and they’re doing incredible things.”

Living with her students also helped her to form strong friendships with them. She often went out with them to sing karaoke or to watch plays. Having already traveled to Cambodia on a gap year, she appreciated developing closes ties to her students and feeling more connected to the country.

Following Eyraud’s time at Harpswell, Chheng and Eng arrived at Bowdoin in late August. 

The two completed their undergraduate studies at law school and studying in America offered both women the chance to develop their English and build upon what they had learned.

As they transitioned to life in America, both women recalled struggling with the colder climate and new cuisine. Chheng also added that Daylight Savings Time was one of the biggest culture shocks for her.

In spite of the new environment, Chheng and Eng spoke highly of their classes and professors. Eng enjoyed taking a smaller, discussion-based English composition class her first semester.

“[My professor] just asked us to talk a lot, be confident, be brave,” she said.

She also appreciated receiving a syllabus, whereas her Cambodian professors often gave students assignments with little notice.

Chheng was struck by how much Bowdoin professors are concerned about their students’ success.
“They care about every single student,” she said.

As Eng discovered, even sitting down with President Mills is as easy as sending an email.
“I emailed him like, ‘Can we just have lunch sometime?’ And he says ‘Yeah!’ How easy is that?” Eng said. “If we have some problem, we can talk, we can demand, we can request whatever we want.”

For academic support and help with English pronunciation, Chheng and Eng meet with four student tutors most days each week to casually practice their English. Among these tutors are Eyraud and June Guo ’16, who will be this summer’s leadership resident.

Lisa Flanagan, who has helped coordinate tutors for all the Harpswell women at Bowdoin, emphasized the importance of learning English from students their own age.

“I wanted them to know how to be a student, how to be a friend in this environment and how to be 22,” she added.

Eng said that her tutors have done just that.

“It’s not only about studying,” she said. “It’s also about like how you can be a social person, how you can enjoy your free time and not be stressed with your homework.”

In their free time, Chheng and Eng enjoy working at their jobs in dining services. Eng is also involved in the Bowdoin Women’s Association, which has sparked her interest to develop similar associations back in Cambodia. 

Both women love to spend time with friends they have made on campus through their orientation trips, Howell House and classes.

After becoming immersed in American culture and English, Chheng and Eng look forward to applying what they’ve learned at Bowdoin to their futures. 

Chheng plans to either bring investment companies to Cambodia or focus on rural community development. Eng intends to apply to graduate school to study either human rights or gender and women’s studies and hopes to someday work in the Parliament of Cambodia.