Nheun grew up in a small ethnic Phnong village about 3 km from Oraing lower secondary school in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. Like all Phnong, Nheun’s family spoke their own language at home and gradually picked up Khmer while being forced to adapt in the early grades of primary school at a time when there were few, if any, Phnong teachers. Minority communities everywhere face varying degrees of social exclusion that often negatively impact the broad spectrum of human development indicators including education, health, and infant mortality.
It’s for these reasons and more that the Phnong Education Initiative (PEI) was conceived in 2009. The PEI program, which is delivered in partnership with Kampuchean Action for Primary Education, has two goals: a) ensure Phnong girls can stay in school through basic scholarships and b) support teacher trainees from the Phnong community who will return to minority classrooms and pay forward the gift of education.
Nheun started in as a basic PEI scholarship recipient in 2009, and continued on to teacher training college in Stung Treang with support from the project. In July 2012, Nheun took the national pedagogy exam and ranked fourth in the entire province. Today Nheun is back in the classroom about 15 km from her home village, and now teaches a class of 13 third-graders.
Nheun recently received her first paycheck which was a long-awaited event for her entire family. She tells us, “my parents and two elder sisters didn’t go to school at all but my mother always supported my education, especially as no one else in the family was educated. While I still had to work like everyone else, I wasn’t made to work too hard and had time to study. From my own side, I always wanted to remain in school as long as possible no matter what difficulties I faced. My father was sick for many years and that brought a lot of pressure on all of us to make up for the loss of income. He died in 2006, and my elder brother was the one that had to drop school in year 9 to become the breadwinner.”
In terms of her teaching career, Nheun tells us the village children are very irregular at attending school which makes subject mastery difficult. Despite the challenges, Nheun pushes forward. “I go to the village very often to ask why parents are not sending the children and try to motivate them to send the children to school every day,” she shares. Nheun’s passion for education also shows in her colorful classroom, which is sprinkled with creative teaching-aids she collected during her time in pedagogy school.
Though Nheun tells us Khmer is becoming more widespread in her community, she still encounters many Phnong children that struggle with the language. “Many of these children arrive at primary school with very little Khmer. I’m happy that I’m able to help my students with my mother tongue so they can get ahead more quickly than children in my school days. Back then, there were absolutely no Phnong speaking teachers.”
PEI is working to change that, and will graduate an additional 16 Phnong teachers this year. In addition to mainstreaming Phnong children into the Khmer-based education system, PEI is celebrating and preserving Phnong culture through the creation of a brand new cultural research center and museum in the region.
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