It has been a great pleasure to get to know young people across Cambodia. There have been many opportunities for meaningful conversations including hotel staff, guides, teachers in training, musicians, dancers, artists, entrepenures, NGOs workers, students, recent university graduates, fellow travelers, and nieces and nephews of Cambodian colleagues.
Their openness has been remarkable, as they share their dreams and goals for themselves and for their communities and country.
Higher education is a huge priority and there are many obstacles to achieving it. I met youth who, after working all week, rode hours from far provinces to the capital to attend weekend classes. And youth who could afford to only take one class at a time. And when there were family emergencies like a sibling needing hospital care, they withdrew from school to help pay for the costs. Youth described families that could only afford to send $5 or less per week toward their room and board for school, and much of that disappears in the fee to ‘wing’ it to them. Yet they persist.
Many shared their clear eyed analysis of economic, environmental and political realities. This is in stark contrast to my experience in 2010, when young people were very wary of any discussion of ‘complicated’ issues. There is not however a particularly hopeful expectation for change on a national level, but young people are thinking critically and are not apathetic. They are working hard and have aspirations.