Cambodians Who Can Afford It Seek US Education

Chheang Vichara, 26, studied ac­counting at university and works at Acleda Bank in Phnom Penh. Now, Ms. Vichara wants a better job, and to do that, she is saving up to attend graduate school in the U.S.

“The requirements to get a scholarship are very high, and I think most Cambodian students can’t meet them,” said Ms. Vi­chara, who was among some 300 young Cambodians who last week attended the U.S.-Cam­bo­dia Education Fair in Phnom Penh, where representatives of 10 U.S. schools—a mix of community colleges, state universities and private institutes—pitched the perks of studying abroad.

With hundreds of thousands of young Cambodians entering the job market every year and wages in urban areas on the rise, a growing number of young people are looking to foreign universities to set themselves apart.

But scholarships are few, and oth­er opportunities do not come cheap.

“We realize that initially, only a select number of students will have the funding necessary to at­tend,” said Krittaya Pichit­nap­a­kul, mar­keting director at the Uni­ver­sity of San Francisco (USF).

Cambodian students hoping to attend USF as undergraduates will need in the region of $37,000 per year just for tuition fees, Ms. Pichitnapakul said at the fair. And, USF estimates the cost of housing, health insurance and textbooks to be an additional $15,000 annually.

“The housing in San Francisco is quite high, but if the Cam­bo­dian students share the house or room together and do their own cooking, it will cost less,” she said, adding that two Cambodian students currently attend the university and are paying full tuition fees.

Melinda van Hemert, assistant dean of admissions at Pepperdine Uni­versity’s School of Public Po­licy in Los Angeles, said that while the school offers generous need- and merit-based scholarships for students from Southeast Asia, living ex­penses in L.A. re­mained very high.

“Whether it’s domestic or international, they still need to come up with that funding,” Ms. Van He­mert said at the fair, noting that on-campus housing alone at Pep­per­dine costs about $1,400 per month.

Such fees are colossal when compared to the price of education in Cambodia, where annual un­dergraduate tuition costs range from $300 to $500 per year.

According to the U.S. Em­bas­sy, about 600 Cambodian students were issued student visas last year.

Laurence Roberts, dean of in­ter­national education at Utica Col­lege in New York state, where tui­tion fees run $31,500 per year and $12,000 for housing and food, said that 10 Cambodian students are currently enrolled in courses at the school.

Those fees, however, pay for “a real education—high quality with no corruption,” Mr. Roberts said in an email.

“I know that the U.S. degree helps put them in the front line when it comes to hiring back home,” he added.

But an American education does not always mean the graduates are more equipped for the job market than those coming out of Cambodian universities, said San­dra D’Amico, managing director of Phnom Penh-based recruitment agency H.R. Inc., and vice pres­ident of the Cam­bo­dian Fed­er­ation of Employers and Busi­ness Associations.

“There are a lot of people who go to schools that are lowly ranked in the U.S. It doesn’t necessarily mean you get the top job when you come back,” she said. “Similar to how you look at education anywhere in Cambodia, you look at the school…and the quality of the school.”

Stephen Paterson, vice president of international affairs at the Uni­­ver­sity of Puthisastra in Phnom Penh, who has organized se­veral educ­a­tion­al trips to the U.S. for his students, said that those who study ov­er­seas tend to do well when they return.

Apart from earning degrees, Mr. Paterson said, Cambodian students also learn the “soft skills” that come with studying overseas: a capacity for critical thought, communication skills and confidence.

“They come back realizing there are different ways of doing things,” he said. “They are much more critical—in a positive way.”

Heng Samnang, a professor of contemporary history and inter­na­tional relations at the Royal Uni­versity of Phnom Penh, who attended Yale University on a Ful­bright scholarship, said those who study abroad return to Cam­bo­dia with a different perspective, which can contribute to the country’s development.

“The young generation, they can think, they can decide, ‘What is good for society?’” said Mr. Sam­nang. “Some of them, they try and come back…[to work] for themselves, but at the same time, they also help society.”

Elisa Rana, 21, who with the help of a generous scholarship graduated from Utica College in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in management, said students who study in the U.S. should use their newfound knowledge to make Cambodia a better place for business.

“You don’t have to only work in the NGOs or the government sec­tors,” Ms. Rana said.

“We need to discover something in order to make business grow in Cambodia…in order to guide the companies in investing and doing more business in the country,” she said.

Ms. Rana said she hopes to continue her studies at Northern Illinois University, where she has been accepted for a master of bus­i­ness management degree.

The only thing preventing her from going, she said, is “finding scholarships and grants” to allow her do so.

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