I am here in Phnom Penh on my second visit to Cambodia.  I am excited about the opportunity to reconnect with the young women living in the Harpswell Dormitories and Leadership Centers, and also meet the new “first year” students. And, I am anxious to make progress on a sewing business project with women in the remote village of Tramung Chrum, which I became involved with last May during my initial visit.

I visited the two Harpswell dormitories over the weekend and bought pizza for the girls. Pizza is a magnet for college age students the world over. A pizza party is a great way to ensure I get to see everyone!

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Oxen-drawn cart of produce on main road in Phnom Penh

On Saturday evening, I travel to the Teuk Thla (TT) dormitory,  the newer of the two Harpswell dorms  which opened in 2009 and houses about 45 students.  I am riding alone in Mr. Key’s tuk-tuk. Mr. Key is the trusted driver Alan Lightman and I used last May, and I feel safe hiring him to get around the city. It is a 20 minute ride from the hotel and I am reminded how much I love this mode of travel. The cacophony of sounds, smells and sites feels familiar as we travel west through Phnom Penh.

Street vendors selling anything from fresh produce to furniture to tires exist side-by-side. Motos are everywhere, and there seem to be more shiny SUVs on the road than I remember from my last trip.  I spot an unusual site: a man washing a low-slung Italian sports car in a stall on the side of the road.

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Hand-pulled cart on streets of Phnom Penh

The contrast of the late model, expensive cars with the hand-pulled carts, motos carrying entire families, tuk-tuks, and old flat-bed trucks is reflective of the gap between the few wealthy and vast majority of poor Cambodians here in Phnom Penh.


When I arrive at the TT dormitory, the girls seem excited to see me. Ah, the pizza did the trick.  There are hugs to go around, and I shamelessly refer to the class rosters I brought along, which include their pictures,  when I cannot recall a name.

Sreypov has a new hairstyle, and looks nothing like her picture, so we decide to take a new photo.  Panha’s eyes are closed in her picture on the roster, so she is next. Here is an absolute truth: Harpswell girls have fun whenever a camera appears!

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Rous Sreypov, Economic Development major

I meet the first-year students, who are now in the second semester of their freshman year.  They appear to have adjusted well to life in the dorm, most having grown up in rural villages with no electricity or indoor plumbing.  It is clear  from the affectionate manner in which they are treated by the older students that they have been fully accepted into The Harpswell family, a sisterhood of life-long support and deep friendship.  What lucky girls!

There are three Resident Leaders at the dormitory.  Their role is to serve as mentors to the students, organize the evening discussions on current events, and help with English lessons.  Darcy and Kathleen are in their 40’s and have left their homes in Maine to be here for two months. Genevieve is a recent university graduate, closer to the girl’s ages. Darcy and Kathleen are the quintessential mother figures, and there is a warmth and familiarity between them and each of the girls.  The girls tell me that they have “movie nights” on Sunday evenings. Last week they saw “Soul Searcher” about a surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark but makes a come-back. “It was very inspiring to see her overcome all her challenges to be successful!”  Great film choice for this group.

The pizza arrives, and the girls all help to organize it along with Coke and packages of cookies which look something like Oreos. Oh dear, have we imported U.S. poor nutrition habits? Only for special occasions, the girls assure me. We finish our pizza and it is now dark outside. Time to leave the girls to their studies!

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Harpswell TT dorm students after our pizza party

On Saturday afternoon, I visit the Boeng Trabaek (BT) dormitory for another pizza party.  Opened in 2006, this was the first Harpswell dormitory and houses about 35 girls. As I approach the gates to the dormitory, I can hear loud laughter and the screaming of young ladies coming from inside the high metal security fence. It sounds like a sporting event is underway. The laughter is a welcome change from the scenes along the alley approaching the dormitory.  This dorm is down a narrow road in a tightly packed neighborhood, with structures made out of corrugated metal, loosely stacked bricks or other recycled materials used to make what appear to be both workshops and homes. Garbage is strewn everywhere, and little children are quick to jump up on the tuk-tuk to catch a ride.

Upon passing through the dormitory gates, however, the world changes. The three story dormitory is freshly painted and looks neat and well-kept. Recently washed clothes hang on racks in the narrow courtyard, and motos and bicycles are neatly parked in the back.

In the 15 foot wide courtyard space, a game is underway. The resident leader here is Stephanie Price, a 31 year old women from Brooklyn who is taking time out of her advertising career to travel and volunteer in third world countries. Wow! She is leading the girls in physical exercise and they are enjoying the camaraderie.  After greetings and hugs, Stephanie challenges them to a run up and down the stairs while singing “Baby, Baby.” OK! These girls are earning their pizza.

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Harpswell students at the BT dorm after Stephanie's exercise session

On this visit, I concentrate on meeting each first-year student, and my camera is a catalyst for conversation. I am missing the roster for first year students,  so I record each girl’s name and major, and then take her picture. Everyone gathers around and heckles each girl until she smiles.  I meet eleven freshmen. Their majors are quite varied: mathematics, 3 in engineering, law, accounting, economics, English, pharmacy, medicine and midwifery.

First year students at BT dorm with Stephanie and third year student Sivgech

The pizza arrives and everyone digs in. This pizza has a new feature: hot dogs embedded in the crust.   It is gone in a flash.

I sit for a while and Stephanie and I talk with Kunthea and Bormey  about potential jobs after graduation. Starting a business of their own is a dream the girls share. I ask how they feel about working for a company after graduation, to learn about the business world and to build a network of contacts. They are enthusiastic and eager learners who are open to many possibilities.  These young women, with their brains, confidence, and initiative will be a competitive advantage for any company fortunate enough to hire them.

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