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CofC Students Reflect on Studying Abroad in Cambodia and Vietnam

Posted by: wichmannkm | August 22, 2017 | No Comment |

Sapa, Vietnam stands at an elevation of 4,921 feet, and has been fondly coined by visitors as “the city in the clouds.” With just one week left of our summer study abroad experience, we sat on the side of a mountain, overlooking the lush green rice paddies that dress the Valley and snacking on some $0.75 pho ga. It was the perfect moment for us to reflect on the six cities that we had already traveled to, and all of the growth that our time in Cambodia and Vietnam had already afforded us.

The CofC Summer Program in Cambodia and Vietnam, co-run by Dr. Jen Wright and Dr. Christopher Day, offers six credits in psychology, political science, or environmental studies. The program utilizes an interdisciplinary academic approach, combining class discussions that cover post-conflict governments, international intervention, and humanitarian aid, with an individual research project that is entirely of the student’s own creation. Cambodia is a country with a corrupt government recovering from a genocide in the 1980s.  Conversely, Vietnam is a rising regional power experiencing rapid economic growth, offer excellent opportunities for personal and academic growth.

As the trip comes to a close, we thought we’d reflect upon our experiences so that we could share them with you:

What was your favorite part of the trip?

Patrick: During our stay in Cambodia we had a free weekend, so Eric and I went to Koh Rong, an island in the Southwest.  While we were in Koh Rong, we rented kayaks and went to a small island where we found an abandoned Buddhist temple.  Exploring the ruins of the temple was surreal and incredible– definitely a highlight for me!

Eric: Like Patrick, Koh Rong was the highlight of my trip. We were grabbing dinner around dusk at a beachfront restaurant, and our waitress told us to wade out about a meter deep into the ocean once it was completely dark, then swish our arms around the water. We waded out, and as we churned our arms through the crystal clear Pacific, we realized that we were surrounded by tens of thousands of electric blue, bioluminescent plankton. It was unreal.

What was the most valuable lesson we learned on the trip so far?

Patrick: I learned to be more mindful of my environmental impact.  I saw so much litter in all of the cities, so much deforestation, and so much smog. It’s heartbreaking and disgusting to watch people destroy the environment like this, and it made me pay more attention to how my privileged position as an American gives me the ability to make choices to preserve the environment.  I also learned that I pay too much for coffee in America.  Vietnamese coffee is ten times better (and cheaper) than Starbucks!

Eric: During this trip, I became acutely aware of the impact that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and aid groups have on local communities. That being said, it is ESSENTIAL that you volunteer with and support organizations that do meaningful work. The sad reality is that there are many nonprofits that are marked by corruption or are working counterintuitively against their service population. Avoid putting time and resources into these organizations by heavily researching nongovernmental organizations before you donate and volunteer, especially abroad!

What is challenging you the most so far?

Patrick: Seeing such widespread poverty is really difficult. Even though poverty certainly exists in the U.S., it’s more frequent and visible in Cambodia and Vietnam.  Watching children dig through trash next to emaciated street dogs and seeing entire homes without electricity and plumbing opened my eyes to global inequality and suffering.  Although this was devastating, we visited NGOs working to break the cycle of poverty for entire villages, which gives me a lot of hope and optimism.

Eric: Each afternoon, we had a four hour block to traverse the cities we visited and interview locals for our research. This was intimidating at first, especially considering that I did not speak any Khmer or Vietnamese prior to the trip. After your first couple of interviews, however, this anxiety vanishes–everyone in Cambodia and Vietnam is incredibly friendly.

What was the craziest food you eaten (or plan to eat)?

Patrick: I tried to order scorpions but the restaurant was out, so instead I tried red tree ant soup.  The flavor wasn’t bad, but picking wings and legs from my teeth wasn’t too fun!

Eric: I ate a live snail off of the jungle floor in Mondulkiri. Always respect the sanctity of the double-dog dare. Also, thanks for the $20, Dr. Day!

Cofc’s Summer Abroad Program to Cambodia and Vietnam will provide students with both the structure of a holistic curriculum and the autonomy to make the trip their own. To find out more information, email Dr. Day at dayc@cofc.edu or Dr. Wright at wrightJJ1@cofc.edu.

Patrick is a sophomore political science and economics double major with a minor in Asian Studies.  This is his first study abroad experience.  Eric is a senior international studies and psychology double major with minors in Spanish and political science.  This is his fifth study abroad experience.

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