Usa Chheng has a dream of opening her own school. However, gaining access to housing and education in her native land of Cambodia can be challenging, especially for females.
The Harpswell Foundation was created in 2005 to address university housing issues for women in Cambodia and has grown into a leadership development program with two dormitories as well as a US Fellows program.
As a Harpswell Foundation Fellow, Chheng is one of four women studying at Christian Brothers University for the 2021-2022 academic year.
“What I’m looking at is the education system in the U.S.,” she said. “I want to be part of learning more about the American school system and expanding my understanding of education around the world.”
In 2003, native Memphian Alan Lightman and his daughter visited Cambodia and began a project in a small village outside of Phnom Penh called Tramung Chrum. In 2004, Lightman met a Cambodian lawyer, who explained to him that when she was in university, she and several other female students lived in a six-foot crawl space between the ground and the bottom of the school building because there was no housing for young women. Male students could live in the Buddhist temples or rent rooms together, but those options were not open to women.
This young woman’s experience inspired Lightman to create the first dormitory for women in Phnom Penh, which was completed in July 2006; the second dormitory was completed in December 2009. The two dormitories house roughly 75 university women and have a strong alumnae network of more than 200 graduates. During their time in Harpswell’s dorms, students participate in Harpswell’s in-house leadership development program through Core Curriculum classes including Analytical Writing, leadership seminars and weekly critical thinking classes. The top graduates are eligible for the Harpswell US Fellows program.
Each year, Harpswell awards 3-4 scholarships for new graduates to study for one year in a post- baccalaureate fellowship in the U.S. with its partner colleges and universities. Fellows are selected based on their academic performance, dorm leadership and English language ability.
Christian Brothers University began working with the Harpswell Foundation program in 2015 after Emily Holmes and Mary Campbell, professors at CBU, visited Cambodia to gain first-hand knowledge and experience about the students and the program.
“It’s an honor to support and train women leaders,” Campbell said. “One of the missions of Harpswell is to train future leaders of Cambodia. That’s a big privilege for us at CBU, and I love being a part of that—enhancing female and women opportunities around the world.”
Holmes, professor of world religions, said that despite the Harpswell students not having English as their first language, they are all at the top of her class.
It enhances our student body to have these students here to share their perspectives and experiences
“It enhances our student body to have these students here to share their perspectives and experiences,” she said. “As part of the Lasallian mission, we want to provide access to education for underserved populations; these are students who have been deprived of quality education.”
Malen En, another Harpswell Fellow, used the internet and YouTube for 5-6 years to teach herself to be proficient in English. Her long-term goal is to work as a government officer as part of parliament after pursuing her master’s degree in the U.S. or the United Kingdom.
“It’s (the Harpswell US Fellows program) an opportunity for us to explore and opportunity to learn more about what we want to do next,” En said. “It makes us more independent to leave our comfort zones of home, and the employers back in Cambodia prioritize those who have international experience.”
Yanuth Then wanted to get involved with the Student Government Association while at CBU. As an international student who will only be at the university for one year, her fellow students did not want to make her go through the election process; therefore, they appointed her as a senator.
“My long-term career goal is to be an ambassador one day because I have a really strong interest in political science and public policy,” Then said. “I plan to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after finishing at CBU and trying to apply to other non-profit organizations.”
Somphors Yarn said the experience is causing her and others to consider pursuing a master’s degree.
It gives us the opportunity to open more doors.
“It (the Harpswell US Fellows program) gives us the opportunity to open more doors,” she said. “If we apply for a master’s, everything just ties up and comes together.”
All four young women agreed that the most exciting part of studying at CBU, aside from the academic program, is being able to leave campus and explore the city of Memphis.
In addition to the students studying in Memphis, CBU can send a student to be a leadership resident at Harpswell in Cambodia for 4-6 months to live in one of the dorms.
“The leadership residents work in one of the two dormitories, and they’re there to be a mentor to help with international news and stories from around the world,” Campbell said. “When our CBU leadership residents go to Phnom Penh, they’re also working with leaders from other countries around the world. Harpswell has been really pleased with the women who come from CBU.”