The First Lady’s Travel Journal: Educating and Empowering Girls in Cambodia

This post is part of a series authored by First Lady Michelle Obama to share her visit to Japan and Cambodia and the Let Girls Learn initiative with young people in the U.S.

I started the day with a visit to the Hun Sen Bakorng High School which has nearly 1,600 hundred students in grades seven through twelve. I was joined by the First Lady of Cambodia, Mrs. Bun Rany, who also cares deeply about girls’ education.

At this school, an organization called Room to Read runs a special scholarship program for girls who live in areas far from the school. Girls in remote parts of Cambodia often wind up dropping out of school because it’s too dangerous to travel to and from school each day or they just can’t afford the costs of transportation. But Room to Read provides girls with scholarships that cover the cost of housing, food and books, so they can live at the school and get their education.

I had the pleasure of meeting with these girls, and they were absolutely amazing — so passionate about their education and so determined to pursue their dreams.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Mrs. Bun Rany Hun, First Lady of Cambodia, are greeted by students while visiting the Room to Read program at Hun Sen Bakorng High School in Siem Reap, Cambodia as part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative on March 21, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
First Lady Michelle Obama and Mrs. Bun Rany Hun, First Lady of Cambodia, talk with students while visiting the Room to Read program at the Hun Sen Bakorng High School in Siem Reap, Cambodia as part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative on March 21, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
First Lady Michelle Obama visits with students at the Room to Read program at the Hun Sen Bakorng High School in Siem Reap, Cambodia as part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative on March 21, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
First Lady Michelle Obama visits with students at the Room to Read program at the Hun Sen Bakorng High School in Siem Reap, Cambodia as part of the “Let Girls Learn” initiative on March 21, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Two of these students — young women named Sohang Vean and Lorn Phounam — shared their stories with me, and I want to share them with you:

My name is Sohang Vean, a grade 12 student at Hun Sen Prasat Bakorng High School.

I am a student who receives support from Room to Read. Today, I am very excited to meet Samdech and first lady. I have never dreamt of meeting both of you.

In the future, I have a dream of becoming a math teacher because I think that this career can help myself, my family and my community.

To be able to study in grade 12 today, I have been through a lot of hardships. I know that I need to overcome them. I’ve never thought that they are the barrier to stop me. I’ve never thought of giving up because of the hardships. I never lose hope in myself.

Every morning I woke up at 4am to cook for the whole household. I don’t live with my parents. I am living with my grandmother, uncle and aunt. I need to help them doing housework from watering the vegetable to looking after the cows. Not only me that have a hard life, my friends here as well. Some of them need to live far away from home since grade 7 so that they can continue studying to finish high school. Sometime they miss home. We, however, never thought of dropping out of school. If we stop studying, we will have the same faith as our families. We want to have a better life. We no longer want to see poverty, discrimination against girls. We want to see this country full of educated people.

I want all the girls to work hard in their studies. No matter what we face, we need to overcome them. Only education can change everything. Finally, I would like to thank Samdech and the first lady for always sincerely concern about women wellbeing. I would like to wish you all the happiness!”

“My name is Phounam. In my family, I have 5 siblings, 3 brothers and 2 sisters.

I am the youngest child. Only my second brother finishes high school and becomes a primary school teacher. The rest dropped out and became farmers. When I was young, I always imagine of becoming a doctor. Most of the villagers do different jobs such as farmers, teachers, policemen, factory workers or working at the hotels.

I live in the rural area, so the hospital is far away, and it is hard to get there. The patients can get worse on the way there. People in my community don’t know how to take care of their health. The elder people don’t brush their teeth nor was their hands. Especially, the kids are very dirty. This is the best way of virus getting into their body. They get sick easily.

I want to see them heathy. Even if I haven’t studied at medical school yet, my friends and I volunteered as a part of Room to Read Girls’ Education program to teach the villagers about personal hygiene and heathy eating. I dream that when I become a doctor, I will be able to take a good care of my family and my community.

Finally, I would like to say thank you so much for your campaign in Cambodia and thank you for coming to my school.”

After meeting with these remarkable young women, I dropped by one of the very first Let Girls Learn trainings for Peace Corps Volunteers and the local leaders, educators and students they’re working with here in Cambodia. Together, they are doing such amazing work. They’re running girls’ leadership camps and girls’ sports teams and learning about health and nutrition, and this training will give them even more skills and tools to educate and empower girls.

The Peace Corps will eventually be conducting these girls’ education trainings for all of its nearly 7,000 volunteers, and I cannot wait to see what they do with everything they learn!

First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a roundtable discussion at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra, in Angkor Wat, Cambodia on March 21, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

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