GLC Trip to Cambodia
By Danielle Keeton-Olsen
Photos and video by Dr. Bob Stewart
The students of the Global Leadership Center studied, read and listened to accounts of Cambodia for months, but they arrived in May in a place far beyond their expectations.
As an intern for the Cambodia Daily newspaper, I felt the same initial amazement: I came only for the job, but the country drew me in, to the point that I elected to take my first fulltime job in the city’s capital. After a few weeks, my whole understanding of the country shifted dramatically, as did my desire to learn more about it. But as I spent several days with the students in this year’s Global Leadership Center program, I saw them come to the same realization as I did: Cambodia’s people are so much more than their country, and meeting and learning about different people is the most enriching part of any journey.
The destination is not the element that attracts most GLC participants into the trip. Several students told me they were looking for consulting experience and this was the best fit. In the back of their minds, the country’s proximity to Thailand and Bali must have convinced them to join the trip.
Cambodia is not an arbitrary location, Dr. Bob Stewart, the program’s advisor, explained. The country has only opened to commercial enterprise in the past two decades. It was in no shape to host domestic business, let alone international trade, during periods of genocide and mass starvation under the Khmer Rouge and buttressed by civil war. But today Phnom Penh bustles with developing businesses, innovative apps and ideas, and a bunch of people rushing to get in on the action, both native to the country and foreigners. That spirit is what drew me to stay in Phnom Penh, and undoubtedly pulled in the GLC students, too.
To create this project, Dr. Stewart connected with professors and students from American University in Phnom Penh and sought ideas from four different companies or organizations, all homegrown Cambodian enterprises that have gained considerable attention for their products, missions or operations.
Clients range from Cambodia Living Arts, an organization aimed at reviving the traditional arts that nearly perished during the Khmer Rouge regime, to MotoGirls, a tourism company where women take the role of majority male tuk tuk drivers or motodops by planning travel routes and recommending activities for their customers.
Fourth-year communications student Luke Deters set out looking for consulting experience, but the program taught him more about communication in business than he would have in an American business.
“It’s a little different working with [Cambodian students and businesses] because they have different cultural backgrounds and ways that they handle working together and collaborating,” he said. “Working through that, the different barriers you have to go through working with someone from a different culture on the other side of the world, that’s probably my biggest takeaway.”
The trip isn’t all work. From the first night they arrived, Dr. Stewart planned a slate of his favorite activities in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, collected from the past two GLC groups and his own explorations.
I’ve met a lot of backpackers and tourists who had poor opinions of Phnom Penh. If I stayed for just a week, I probably would feel no call to go back. After you visit the popular tourist drags and consume your fill of $3 loc lak and $1 fruit shakes, the city loses its luster. Income inequality is painfully evident, litter crowds the sidewalks, the cuisine takes a toll on some visitors’ stomachs and the tuk tuk drivers endlessly harass for rides.
But if you rub all the tourism grime off the city and get beyond the disheartening history and current political strife, Phnom Penh – and more than anything, its residents – gleams like a gemstone. Dr. Stewart knows this. I came to realize it after two months. And I think in their two weeks here, the entire GLC class saw its glints of beauty as well.
“I feel in the States, people just expect you to know how to do things,” said Alan Sarver, a fifth year student studying marketing and communication studies. “But here they realize I don’t know how to do things and say ‘I’ll give you a hand’…it’s a good atmosphere.”
Dr. Stewart found entertaining, and sometimes quirky, activities for the group, from a local food tour, shadow puppet show workshop, and a trip to an Angkorian museum run by the North Korean government. The students had enough free time to shop the markets and haggle for dozens of scarves and elephant pants. Their trip to the Killing Fields became more potent as the group met Kosal Khiev, a poet who was brought to America as a young child and deported as an adult in 2011.
But the key aspect of the trip, he said, was putting students together with their counterparts at American University in Phnom Penh, both for work and play.
On their first full day of the program, Dr. Stewart tasked the group with a scavenger hunt trip, all taking group photos at every stop, from the Royal Palace to Olympic Stadium.
The activity helped them see the city, but it was primarily to introduce students from Athens to those in Phnom Penh. They friend requested each other on Facebook, and liked each other’s silly photos. When they started working together at American University of Phnom Penh’s campus the next day, they felt comfortable working and discussing with each other.
“I think we have a good chemistry,” Deters of his relationship with AUPP students. “It’s fun, we go out and eat with them and hang out with them. I never thought I’d have friends all around the world. My network just got huge.”
The trip also brought members of the class together. In an ordinary classroom, students rush in right at 10:45 a.m. three days a week and leave as soon as the professor lets them go. In their trip abroad, GLC students were forced to get to know each other, whether they wanted to or not.
It’s an exciting dynamic. The class attracts intrepid students. They ask questions and enthusiastically participate in any activity given to them. Even through the physical and emotional stresses of traveling abroad – and there are many – they embrace the adventure and shoulder the difficulties.
And their curiosity goes beyond the boundaries of the trip.
When he was invited to a wedding by a friend he made on the trip, Robel Amede, a senior studying nursing, gathered a group, dressed in a fine rose-printed button down with slick shoes and belt, and brought us all to the grand party. I donned my sundress and nice sandals as a chaperone and danced with the American students and Cambodian wedding guests. We had a tight curfew, but the group made the most of it, talking with the guests, sampling the food and hitting the dance floor.
Robel’s determination to get us there made it all possible. “It’s a cultural experience,” he said. “I may never have the chance to do something like this again.”
Cristina Sicard said she works well and enjoys spending time with the group, because the third year student of journalism and Spanish found people who are just as enthusiastic and bold as she.
“I don’t think any of us would be in this program if we didn’t like life, in the sense that we’re adventurous, we like to challenge ourselves,” Sicard said. “I’m honestly honored to be a part of this group because I’m surrounded by leaders and people who I know will accomplish a lot of things.
Even with all the care, effort and love of Southeast Asia that Dr. Stewart infuses into the program, GLC could fall apart without the students. But the students in GLC – with their passion, enthusiasm, respect and receptiveness to other cultures – reminded me what I came to love about Ohio University. Wherever they are in the world, Bobcats work hard, but they also know how to have a damn good time.
Danielle Keeton-Olsen is a 2016 alumna of Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism who now works for the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. For more on her experience serving as in intern with the Cambodia Daily, please click here for a video about the internship.