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Military group experience Khmer culture

West PointIn May 2014, Projects Abroad Cambodia welcomed a group from West Point Military Academy to do a Khmer project as part of their Cultural Immersion course. The group consisted of five people including the group leader, John Hagen, who is their professor of International Relations in their Social Science Department. The four students – 19 year old Melissa Anderson from Colorado, 19 year old Austin Espey from Texas, 20 year old Amos Lee from New Jersey, and 20 year old Joshua  Lobdell from New York - applied to do the  Khmer Project for three weeks.

Each of them had a different reason for choosing Cambodia as the country where they would do their volunteer work. Melissa chose to come to Cambodia because she thought it would be a unique experience and it would give her a chance  to explore the culture. Amos, on the other  hand, decided to volunteer in Cambodia  to gain experience in a developing country and he was interested in the political and  environmental issues that the country faces. He wanted to see how the country operated in general and how he could make a difference. 

Over the course of three weeks, they took part in a lot of activities to immerse themselves in the culture. These included sightseeing around the capital of Phnom Penh and visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. They took Khmer language lessons, watched weavers at work, learnt classical Apsara dancing, made traditional puppets, studied the process of pottery making, and learnt how to cook Khmer cuisine. They also participated in a Dirty Day during which they took children on an outing to celebrate International Children’s Day. On top of all of this, they also did renovations at a school for children who live in slum conditions. 

All of the students experienced a culture shock when they first arrived. However, they adapted easily as they felt that  “everyone is very friendly, helpful, and  have tried to help us or interact with us.”

After three weeks of taking part in the project, they understood the importance of volunteering abroad. Amos felt that the experience was very helpful for his future in the army. He emphasized how cultural immersion is very important to understand the relationship between two countries and people from completely different backgrounds.

According to Amos and Melissa, their most memorable day was helping to rebuild and renovate the school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. They enthused that “it was really awesome to work not only with my team members but also with the kids at the school who were running around to help carry sand and plaster the wall.”

With reference to the cultural difference between Cambodia and the States, Joshua found Cambodia to be more laid-back. He felt that people seemed more relaxed and able to take time to enjoy life without feeling like they had to run around and do things.

Their advice for future volunteers would be to not be scared to try new things! They believe that the Khmer project is the perfect way to explore Cambodia.

The group leader, John Hagen, said that Projects Abroad provided them with an opportunity to explore Cambodia - its culture, language and food. “The Khmer Project gave my students a chance to dive into a country’s culture that they were not familiar with. And it provides a really good opportunity to develop cross cultural components - if they have to operate in a country where they don’t speak that language, they would know how to cope with this and adjust.”

Read more about the Khmer Project in Cambodia.

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