Cambodians teach lessons in gratitude

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By Megan Ferrando
Staff Reporter

It should not take a 20-hour plane ride and weeks in a foreign land to make me truly love learning, but it often takes something big to change someone’s perspective. Sitting around a table in the hot, humid air of Cambodia, with a pot of boiling rice and others walking barefoot in a church without air conditioning, the Cambodian youth took turns giving prayer requests. To my surprise, there were common themes mentioned repeatedly: wisdom, education, school and exams.  
This was my first recognition of how prized education is in Cambodia and many third world countries. Many youth of Cambodia value education above all else because without it, there is little chance to rise and grow. Many U.S. citizens also recognize the importance of education because if we did not, many of us would not be in college.  The difference, though, is education is so accessible here that it becomes unappreciated by many.
It is common for college students to regularly skip class or complain about studying.  It is also common for me to receive strange looks when I say I love school and get upset when class gets canceled for Louisiana frost.  Not to say I don’t enjoy breaks, but it is almost painful to think of how much the Cambodian youth yearn for a chance at education and then how poorly we sometimes appreciate it here, myself included.
Some of the youth we spent time with spoke English well while others spoke none at all.  Therefore, translators accompanied us, making a conversation twice as long because we had to stop between every sentence so they could translate.  It was through these means that I had many conversations with the people of Cambodia, although sometimes all it took was a smile to communicate.
One boy named Kheang shared his deep desire to go to college, but was worried because he could not afford it. His family was very poor and worked in rice fields like many families in Cambodia. Unlike in the U.S., scholarships and loans are not so easy to come by. Without scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, many of us would not become educated as we are.
Kheang was given an opportunity to take an entrance exam for $25 that would help him, but he could not afford it. Without much hesitation, he sold his phone to a friend to earn the money he needed. That’s how important education was to him.
I am not sure if Kheang made it to college, but I do know that it costs hundreds of U.S. dollars each year for Cambodia natives to earn a college education, which is costly for Cambodians.  
In fact, education is so out of reach for so many that even as children they do not bother with it. It was common to see young children selling or begging on the streets instead of studying in a school nearby. One day while walking down the roads in Cambodia, a missionary spoke about how many children will not even go to school because they can make money selling things on the streets.  Many parents raise their children to be salesmen before 10 years old.
We also took a ride down the floating village where we viewed living conditions where floating shacks served as homes. While we were riding, a young boy paddled beside us in an oversized bowl begging for money.  It was this moment toward the end of our trip when it became real to me the opportunities we have compared to the opportunities there.
This young boy was literally in a bowl, using a stick to paddle, and probably learned from the start of his life how to beg. The opportunity for this boy to go to school and grow up to have a successful job was so limited that his family probably didn’t find it necessary to try.  
It is when I think of these memories that I ¬¬¬cannot stand to see what we have here in the U.S. go unappreciated or wasted. No matter what bad things one has to say about our government, we are educated throughout our childhood and can get loans in many cases to continue our education.  
In the U.S. we have so many opportunities. Education is almost thrown at us. Many people worldwide can only dream of this chance. It is important to change our perspective and grow to truly recognize and appreciate the opportunity we have to create a better future.