Helping to provide economic opportunities for Cambodians
Australia Awardee Leng Thavy comes from a family of high achievers.
Thavy, who graduated from Monash University in 2014 with a Masters in Human Resource Management, has three brothers – two of whom also completed an Australia Award.
“One of my brothers completed a Master of Public Health at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and is now working with an NGO in Cambodia”, Thavy said.
“And another brother graduated earlier with his MBA from Monash University, and now works with the Ministry of Health.”
Thavy was born in 1982 in the small village of Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province. The village is in the south of the Province, which is a major contributor to Cambodia’s agriculture and fishing outputs – and is part of what is called the "great green belt" of Cambodia.
However, Ba Phnom is somewhat remote, and for many centuries has been an important spiritual location and sacred place for Ascenti monks; it has been associated with Shiva since the Seventh Century.
“My parents always emphasised with us that a good education meant a better future for ourselves”, Thavy said.
Thavy’s parents were already old and as she was growing up in the early years following the Pol Pot regime. Life was challenging.
Her sister supported her parents with a small village stall, both while they were living in the Province, and later in Phnom Penh where her family had moved in 1985, when Thavy was just a three-year old.
And after the family moved to Phnom Penh, her elder sister and three elder brothers expanded the small stall when they all moved to Phnom Penh.
In high school, Thavy liked studying Mathematics: “I was not very good at it”, she said. “But then again, I was not so bad either,” she laughed.
At school, she was not sure about what job she wanted to do when older.
“I liked a lot of variety things and subjects when I was young”, she said.
“My brothers had influenced me to love medicine and I thought I would follow that pathway, but after finishing high school I changed my mind and decided I really did not want to study medicine.”
Thavy went straight from high school to study a Bachelor of Business Administration at the National Institute of Management - now the National University of Management (NUM).
Specialising in Accounting and consistently gaining straight “A”s or “A+”s, Thavy graduated in 2002.
After graduation, she interned for six months at World Vision, in their Internal Audit Department.
After thoroughly demonstrating her skills throughout her internship, Thavy took up a job as Secretary to the HR Manager.
“That’s where my HR journey started”, she said.
After one year, she was promoted to the position of HR Coordinator, in charge of international staff.
In early 2005, following the late-December Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, World Vision needed someone to go to Sri Lanka urgently to coordinate with international staff and help coach local human resources staff on HR administration for international staff.
World Vision asked her to go, and Thavy worked in Sri Lanka for three months in that demanding and critical role.
After contributing to the global humanitarian efforts in Sri Lanka, she returned to World Vision Cambodia for a few months when she was offered position of Human Resources Manager with a sister organization of World Vision – the microfinance body (VisionFund), where she stayed for three and a half years.
And in 2010, she joined CARE International (Cambodia), where she worked until she took up her Australia Award to study in Melbourne at Monash University.
“I wanted to develop myself further, and when I carefully considered my background and studies, I realised I needed an academic qualification.”
“Besides, I always wanted to see what life in other countries was like.”
Thavy had heard all about Australia Awards from her brothers and always wanted to be successful like them – but initially there were no scholarships available for people who did not work in a Government organisation.
But as soon as the Australia Awards application pool opened up to include other employment categories, she applied and was successful, and went to Australia with her husband and her two-and a half-year old son in 2012.
“I enjoyed the overall cultural experience of living away from Cambodia”, she said.
“Especially the different relationship between teachers and students at universities in Australia.”
While at Monash, she got a job in the Payroll Section in Monash University, “to gain international working experience and to support my learning in lectures.”
Thavy’s son learned English while in child care in Melbourne and he has continued building his English language skills after she enrolled him in an international school once she returned to Cambodia in 2014.
Back in Phnom Penh, Thavy returned to her previous CARE International position, and noticed immediately how her skills and knowledge had grown significantly.
“During my time on Award in Australia, I increased my confidence and critical thinking skills a lot.”
“In fact, my Director in CARE noticed how much more confident I had become after returning.”
In August 2014 Thavy moved to a new organisation, although still in the development sector - LOLC Microfinance, as Head of Human Resources.
LOLC was originally established by Catholic Relief Services in 1994 to enable rural women to gain access to financial services that they could use to finance their microenterprises.
It is a rapidly growing, regulated microfinance institution with a focus on serving entrepreneurs and families who are at the base of the socio-economic pyramid - providing economic opportunities to improve the quality of Cambodians’ lives.
Thavy is quite definite that the work she does now with LOLC is directly related to her Australia Award studies and learnings. Equally important to her is that her supervisor is very supportive of her using the skills she gained in Australia.
“As Head of HR, I am one of the organisation’s Executive Members, so I get opportunities to help influence company strategic directions.”
Thavy still stays in touch with her Australia Award Scholarship classmates, work colleagues from Monash and academic staff there.
“It was a wonderful opportunity”, she said. “And I would love my son to eventually have the opportunity to study in Australia also.”
Thavy has had two other (shot-term) international training scholarships: three weeks on microfinance in Turin; and a one-week scholarship on leadership in Marseilles.
Continuing a family commitment to helping develop Cambodia
2013 Australian Award graduate of the Carnegie Melon University, Reaksmey Hong grew up in a poor village in Kandal province where social justice issues were paramount. Reaksmey and his family believe in education as the key to economic growth and to end poverty; and foreign language is key to further education.
In 1994, when his mother took up a job with an NGO, he had a chance to go to secondary school in Phnom Penh, and it was then that he started learning English about five hours a week with private tutorial classes.
Reaksmey held two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree in Cambodia before pursuing his study in Australia.
“The quality of education in Cambodia at the time I was studying was very limited, so I chose to study in different fields to gain more knowledge.”
“As I had the opportunity, I did computer science and engineering and law simultaneously in 1999-2004, and a Master in Development Management between 2006 and 2010”, he said.
Reaksmey was inspired by his mother’s vision to help developing Cambodia through working in the civil society sector.
He learnt that volunteering work is a key to opening the career doorway to a good job, following education. So he started working in a volunteering job with a Cambodian NGO - the Youth Resources and Development Program - from the first year of his university.
He started his first full-time, paid job in 2003 as an IT and Program Assistant, and gradually developed skills and interests in social development work with an American NGO - Church World Service Cambodia.
In that organisation, he started as a Project Assistant for integrated rural development program in Svay Rieng in 2004, and gradually gained a senior managerial role in the same organisation in 2008. He told “It was my social development and leadership experience at the field with people in poverty that build foundation to the Australia Award.”
Before applying for an Award he had only heard or read about Australia – and that its universities offered international standard and quality education, and a “European” lifestyle. “That inspired me, and I soon found that universities in Australia were very multicultural”, he said.
Even the people and communities in Adelaide represented a wide range of cultures; before he went he was worried about how different things would be but he soon found that he could blend easily –“even Asian foods were easy to find”, he said.
However, Reaksmey was surprised – and a little disappointed – at the small number of Australians in his course: “only two of about 50 people enrolled in my degree”.
His wife and young daughter joined him in Australia, and Reaksmey made the most of his study opportunity.
“I was amazed by child care services in Australia, my daughter started speaking English from her early childhood, with care and support from talented and professional career and teachers”, he explained.
“This service, subsidized for scholarship students give me not only the full opportunity to study, but a great start in education for my daughter; she still speaks English at home until now”, he added.
He also had a chance to work for World Vision Australia in Melbourne as part of his Master’s degree, which gave him a brand new experience within the same civil society sector.
On his return to Cambodia in 2013, Reaksmey worked with an NGO – KHANA – in policy advocacy, research and strategy development. KHANA, is the largest national NGO providing HIV prevention, care and support services at the community level in Cambodia, as well as integrated sexual and reproductive health, family planning, maternal child health, TB and livelihoods programming.
After a year with KHANA, Reaksmey was offered a position at DFAT in Phnom Penh, as the Program Manager for Law and Justice, Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVI), and Australia Awards Scholarships.
This job brought him to another spectrum of aid and development. “I used many of the skills I’d learned while on Award in Australia – such as policy brief writing, aid management, and policy development, etc – and how to write documents meaningfully and succinctly.”
In early 2017, Reaksmey joined ActionAid Cambodia, as a Head of Programme, because he wanted a career to let him contribute more directly to people in poverty. ActionAid is an INGO operating across 45 countries.
In ActionAid Cambodia, an organisation with more than 40 staff in Cambodia, he uses many of the leadership and management, policy analysis, and program development skills he learned while in Australia.
“Action Aid does a lot of policy-based research and policy advocacy,” he explained.
“My current project with them involves global justice and poverty eradication. This involves empowering community groups by ensuring they know their rights and how to advocate for themselves and their communities.”
Reaksmey believes that working with an NGO gives him a lot of engagement with his country - and the opportunity to influence social change and justice from the individual and grassroots level.
Reaksmey’s wife also works for an NGO and she loves her job for the same reasons. They have a daughter and a son, but Reaksmey’s plans do not end here….
In the future he sees the need to be focusing on one specific field, which is public policy development.
“I will do a PhD on that topic. I want to investigate in depth about structural causes of poverty for women and vulnerable groups - and to support social development and justice in my country”, he added.
Award Graduate Mey Vannak is ready for the next step upwards
Mey Vannak’s Australia Award helped him move from the local to the regional to the international business sector.
And although Vannak completed his Master of Global Food and Agribusiness at the University of Adelaide in 2014 and 2015, his current and previous jobs have been more about the broader world of trade and agricultural financing.
“I use my Australia Award skills very regularly”, he said.
“Even though my Award Master’s has a course title that seems to emphasise agriculture, my studies were more about finance, accounting, economy, and trade”, he added.
Vannak was born in Kandal Province, about 30 km west of Phnom Penh. He came from a very large family – of 10 people: four boys, four girls and their parents.
“Although my father was a primary school teacher, my parents were mainly farmers”, he explained.
“My father was very innovative; he had to be - otherwise they could not have fed and clothed eight children.”
And as there was nowhere else to hold such events locally, his parents set up a small catering business, for weddings and other special events in their area.
Understandably proud of the achievements of his siblings, Vannak explains that four of his family’s eight children hold domestic degrees from Cambodian universities, that one of his sisters became a nurse, and two brothers now also work in banks.
In school, Vannak excelled in Mathematics and in English language, but admits that he was not very good at Khmer literature subjects.
“I remembers that I always wanted to be a businessman when I was going through school. I knew also that I never wanted to be a primary school teacher”, he said
Nevertheless, Vannak’s undergraduate degree was in Education (Teaching) from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).
“I didn’t really want to study teaching at all, but that was the only scholarship I could get, and my parents certainly could not afford to pay the $US400/ year it would have cost them for me to study at university if I had not gained a scholarship.”
So Vannak studied for his Education Degree at RUPP from 1998, and graduated with his undergraduate qualification in 2002.
“After I graduated from RUPP, I tried very hard to pass the national exam to become a teacher, but even after only one week I knew that teaching was not for me, so instead of applying for a job at a school, I joined an NGO called ‘Action for Children’.”
He worked with ‘Action for Children’ for two years in the role of Project Coordinator, which has responsibilities similar to those of an NGO Country Director.
As Project Coordinator with ‘Action for Children’, he supervised 15 local staff, and because his English was good, he also had a lot to do with the international directors of the program.
In 2006, Vannak left the NGO and started working with the ANZ banking organisation, moving upwards from his first position there as Operations Support Officer.
“I was promoted to Business Development Manager, and again to Branch Manager - at two branches in Phnom Penh and one in Sihanouk.”
In 2011, Vannak joined the Advanced Bank of Asia (ABA) where he had similar responsibilities to those he undertook as Branch Manager with ANZ.
He worked with ABA for almost two years, where his main clients were farmers and others in the agriculture supply chain – in the Cassava, Rice, Rubber, and Beans sectors.
“But I had been thinking seriously about applying for an international scholarship for 15 years”, Vannak said.
“And although I applied for a Japanese scholarship for many years in a row, but wasn’t successful, I really wanted an Australia Awards Scholarship.”
“Unfortunately, for most of that period Australia Awards were only available for Cambodian public service applicants.”
Eventually, however, private sector employees could apply and after three attempts, he was successful in gaining an Australia Award.
In 2014, his wife and daughter both joined him in Australia, after he spent three months settling into his course, university and new home.
“I really liked Australian society very much; in fact, I dream that one day we may have a society in Cambodia as inclusive as Australia’s.”
“We were made to feel very welcome; I felt very warm and loved by the people I met there’, he added.
Once in Australia, Vannak signed up for the “Experience Adelaide” program which put him in touch with an Australian volunteer whose role was to help international students settle into the Australian lifestyle.
“My host person in Adelaide was Kate Duffy”, he remembered. “And I still stay in touch with her even now. “It was a very positive experience.”
Vannak’s eighteen-month old daughter was enrolled in child care in Australia, so she soon picked up English, and he feels that she now sees it as her native language, rather than Khmer.
“Study opened my own eyes to a much bigger world… big numbers, big land, big business,” he said.
“In fact, for example the South Australian Government’s budget is bigger than Cambodia’s GDP.”
He believes that studying overseas gave him a lot more confidence in himself, and he now finds it much easier to communicate with other people.
After being back in Cambodia for three months, Vannak was offered his current job with Vattanac Bank, where he is Branch Manager at the Bank’s main office in Phnom Penh.
He uses his Australia Award skills very regularly - with its particular focus on financial analysis, risk assessment, client service and relationship management.
“I have moved from understanding the national business sector to the regional business sector, to the global sector”, he said. “My Award has opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
“Management sees me as a person who is ready to take on a bigger and harder jobs and challenges.”
“After ten years in the industry, it is time to move up”, he said. “My next step is to become a Bank Director – at the Senior Executive level.
In his limited spare time, Vannak helps potential Australia Award applicants and Awardees with English language practice and with IELTS preparation.
“Anything I can do to help future awardees I see as a moral obligation.”
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs together with Australia Awards Cambodia are conducting a Workshop for women who are considering overseas study or who are applying for an Australia Awards Scholarship Intake 2019.
- What: Living Library
- When: Thursday 8 February 2018 (18:00 to 19:30)
- Where: Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh
- To register: http://bit.do/Living-Library
- Notes: Due to the structure of the event we may need to limit numbers. Preference will be given to those who register early. We reserve the right to close registrations when we reach a certain number.
Where can you find answers to the questions you have about overseas study? Just as a library has many books that you can borrow to access the information you need, we are offering an opportunity to participate in a 'Living Library'. Instead of books, the Living Library provides access to women who have practical experience and a story to tell about their overseas study experience, the challenges they faced, and how their lives have changed. By attending the Living Library you will have an opportunity to hear some stories, to ask your questions and to engage in conversation about the challenges and benefits of overseas study.
The Workshop will be in English.
Sophea wants to be a “part of the solution” to inequality
Being raised in a family from a fairly poor background, where the little available money had to go a long way, is just one factor that led to Soung Soksophea’s career in working with needy children and adults.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1983, Sophea completed her Masters’ in Public Policy at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, in 2011.
As Senior Campaign Manager for “World Vision International” in Cambodia, Sophea is using many of the technical expertise and “soft” skills she gained while undertaking her Australia Award studies at ANU.
Sophea was the eldest in a close-knit family, with one brother and one sister. Her mother, now a widow after her father passed away more than 10 years ago, was her “hero”.
“I learned a lot from both my mother and my father”, Sophea explained.
“That knowledge and understanding helped a lot when I began working with street children in my spare time, while studying for my Bachelor’s degree at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC).
“A Canadian lecturer there at the time told me about the street-children’s charity ‘Friends International Organisation’, so I visited them and signed up as a volunteer.”
Growing up in central Phnom Penh, at age seven, she went to a primary school (Chaktomuk) near the Royal Palace.
Her mother would check Sophea’s schoolbooks at the end of each day, reminding her always of the importance of gaining an education.
Although an outstanding student herself, her mother’s dreams of higher education were not possible during the Khmer Rouge years.
“Even my grandfather, although poor, realised the importance of education; as a boy he used to read and study in the pagoda, by the light of an incense stick.”
Always keen to learn even when very young, Sophea used to follow her aunts and uncles as they went to local English classes, and borrowed their text books at night to improve her language skills. In Junior High School, she started learning English formally as part of school curriculum.
Although initially looking for a future career as a science researcher, she also considered becoming a lawyer.
“I may not have known how to argue logically, but I certainly could talk a lot”, she laughed.
When enrolling at PUC, a new university at that time, Sophea wasn’t sure about whether she should study law or literature. Eventually she decided on an Economic Degree, only to swap to International Relations part-way through.
And with her mother’s savings, some support from her uncle, and taking time off to earn money for her studies during the eight years she was enrolled at PUC, Sophea finally finished her Bachelor of International Relations in 2007. Since 2002, she worked as a travel consultant for a UK based travel agency for two years and moved to work in the ‘International Organisation’ office – as a public relations / communications officer.
Sophea applied for an Australia Award in 2008, but was not successful in that year because her English language scores were not good enough.
For the next year, she studied English day and night to improve her language skills -and applied again in 2009 - successfully.
“It wasn’t easy when I first arrived in Australia. I missed my Mum, although we skyped quite often, but I started to make friends – from all over the world”, Sophea said.
“Initially, university in Australia was very challenging; I just could not produce high quality work, and although I did participate well in lectures, seminars and tutorials, I had problems with the writing side of things.”
“In fact, in Australia, I first lost my confidence, but then I gained it again.”
Sophea soon found a good friend who worked in the Australian Government’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – a friendship still going strong six years later.
With many new friends, and staying at a school dormitory in Canberra with some Cambodia classmates, she soon rebuilt her confidence.
”We came to an agreement in our shared meals”, Sophea explained. “They would cook and I would clean because I had no idea how to cook when I left Cambodia.
“By the time I came back I was a better cook and so I used to joke that I came back with two separate Master’s degrees – a Master of Public Policy and a Masters of Chef-ing.”
When she first returned to Cambodia, Sophea found it hard to get a job. The employment market was very competitive and she had lost the networks she had established before leaving for her Australia Award.
She worked as a consultant for a while, but found that the role did not really suit her, so in 2013 she took up a position in the senior management team of “Save the Children” in Cambodia, as their Advocacy Adviser.
And although this role – spending half her time in the office and the other half in the field – strengthened her commitment to working with disadvantaged people, she found that she could not use the skills and experience she had gained in Australia as much as she would have liked to.
So, in early 2015, she moved to her current position with World Vision.
Sophea advises anyone considering applying for an Australia Award to know exactly what they want to study and why.
In discussions with potential applicants, she emphasises the importance of the new skills she gained in Australia – particularly in critical and strategic thinking, and in impact effectiveness.
“In the future, I would like to eventually move into the Social Enterprise and Fair Trade area – perhaps looking at livelihood development, in agriculture focusing on small scale or family agriculture and home grown vegetable, even though I lack of knowledge and experience in the sector. I would also like to teach at a school and to be an advocate for social justice.”
“From the start, I always wanted to be part of the solution to inequality in Cambodia…”
“And that hasn’t changed at all”, Sophea said.