Samphors Kean and Sopoan Keo—two exchange students from Cambodia—are part of a long line of Harpswell Foundation-sponsored students who get to experience “a first-class American college like Bowdoin” in the words of philanthropist and Harpswell Foundation founder Alan Lightman.

Both Keo and Kean explained that, while they were initially homesick and intimidated by coming to America, they are growing more comfortable and engaged with the Brunswick community.

“People smile to me, try to talk to me, and that’s enough. Just smiling is enough—it makes me feel at home,” said Kean.

Since it became an non-governmental organization (NGO) in 2007, the Harpswell Foundation’s mission has been to empower a new generation of female leadership in Cambodia. It has sent two female students to the College every year since 2011.

The foundation has built two dormitories in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, specifically for women so that they can not only attend a university but also have a safe place to live and learn in Harpswell Foundation classes.

“Boys can live in pagodas. They’re allowed to stay there, but for females, there’s no place for them, only renting houses,” said Keo. “It is difficult for them to rent a house. The conditions for those houses is not good. They don’t have the opportunity of classes like we have. They worry about food.”

Lightman, or “Dad,” as Keo and Kean affectionately call him, is an author and Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He founded the Harpswell Foundation after a trip to Cambodia in 2004 when he met Veasna Chea, who had graduated from law school while living in the six-foot crawl space between the ground and a building due to the lack of available housing for female students.

Many of the foundation’s students are from extreme poverty, like Chea.

“I like the food at Bowdoin the most actually because I was born in a poor family,” said Kean. “When I was young, I had to share one egg with my sister, so that’s one egg with two people, but right now I can eat as many as I can.”

Both Kean and Keo work at Thorne Dining Hall as line servers, which enables them to work alongside Rany Soeun, a Cambodian immigrant who came to Maine in 2004.

“We work together, sit together, talk together in Khmer [Cambodia’s official language],” said Soeun. “They really love to be here—freedom, respect, feeling safe. I feel the same way, but we all complain about the cold.”

Soeun has been able to maintain contact with past Harpswell students who have gone back to Cambodia via Facebook and was able to see them this past summer when she returned to visit.
Leah Alper ’16 was in Cambodia at the Harpswell Foundation this past summer as well, tutoring and teaching students in English and critical thinking.

“I loved it,” said Alper. “I was working with the Harpswell Foundation on a daily basis, living together with the students, doing whatever the women wanted to work on.”

Lightman explained that the partnership between his foundation and the College began when the College bestowed him with an honorary degree in 2005 and he befriended former president Barry Mills. The partnership between the foundation and Bowdoin is being reviewed according to Christine Wintersteen, director of off-campus study and international programs.
Alper expressed her belief and hope that the partnership continues.

“Bowdoin has been in it since the beginning. I don’t see them getting out any time soon,” Alper said.

Katie Coleman ’16 also traveled to Cambodia this summer to teach art to young students, mostly boys, thanks to a Global Citizens Grant from the McKeen Center. While Coleman wants to return to Cambodia, her visit was also a trying time.

“Day to day, I had a really miserable time. It was hot, like 100 degrees, 100 percent humidity, my camera was fogging, my film was melting, I couldn’t talk to anyone, I was lonely, I was sick, I burned my leg on a motorcycle, I adopted a cat that was really really sick….and then it died like two days later,” said Coleman.

Coleman noted the culture shock that she experienced in Cambodia and the guilt she felt after becoming desensitized to the extreme poverty.

“I felt guilty about privilege, guilty about interacting with the kids. I felt guilty about leaving,” said Coleman. “I sort of felt like I was taking advantage of the things I was seeing.”

On one occasion, Coleman gave her students disposable cameras to take pictures of things they cared about. Upon reflecting on her own photography, she felt that her pictures couldn’t encapsulate the experience in the same way that the photos by her students could. Coleman’s exhibit, “Barang,” a collection of her students’ photos, is on display at the Robert H. and Blythe Bickel Edwards Center for Art and Dance.

“I can’t really claim ownership of the photos [since they were taken by the students], but I think I can claim responsibility… I don’t have a conclusion on that,” said Coleman. “[The photos] are not contrived. They’re really honest.”

Juliet Eyraud ’16, who lived and worked at the Harpswell Foundation the summer after her first year at Bowdoin, has witnessed the evolution of the program and its effects at Bowdoin. Eyraud believes that the Harpswell Foundation is not only a more sustainable model as an NGO than most organizations, but that the community benefits from the students.

Lightman echoed these sentiments, explaining that Harpswell Foundation students have had experiences that few other students bring to the community, as Cambodia experienced a genocidal war between 1975 and 1979.

“Samphors and Sopoan represent the first generation after the genocide—these are the people who are going to rebuild the generation,” said Lightman. “Where they have come to get where they are, graduating university and then attending Bowdoin, is remarkable.”

Kean and Keo said that while there have been definite challenges to changing lifestyles so drastically, experiencing the freedoms of American culture has inspired them to achieve large goals when they return to Cambodia.

“I want to do educational policy and pursue graduate school if I can get a scholarship,” said Keo.

“My big goal—this might be impossible—is to open a university in Cambodia,” said Kean.