For College of Charleston senior Chak Or, studying abroad in Cambodia was more than an experience to see another part of the world.
For the first time international traveler, it was about reconnecting with his roots, learning about his dad’s childhood, and walking the grounds of the country his parents fled nearly 50 years ago.
In the late 1970s, Or’s parents fled the Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime that took control of Cambodia for almost four years and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million people.
In the summer of 2017, Or had the chance to visit his parents’ homeland as part of the College’s study abroad program to Cambodia and Vietnam, which offers courses in psychology and environmental studies.
“I had the opportunity to reconnect with my culture and it’s something I don’t think most people have the opportunity to do,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without going on this trip.”
Separate from his parents, the trip gave Or a chance to create his own understanding of the country.
“They have their own version of what Cambodia was like when they lived there when they were younger, and I wanted to experience the country on my own,” he says.
While in Cambodia the elementary education major and political science minor met an uncle for the first time, worked with local children and conducted research that connected his areas of study. The research title for his political science minor was “Determining if Cambodian Youth Are Learning About the Environment: A Comparison Between the Children’s Education Background and Lifestyle.”
Or, who is a member of the College’s Call Me MISTER program which supports minority students majoring in education, believes the experience will positively impact his future as an educator.
“I want to be transparent with my students and let them learn about who I am. I will be able to bring my culture into the classroom and hopefully engage students in conversation about culture and the importance of how our community values – and needs – a variety of cultures,” says Or, who is a recipient of the Dr. Sam and Nancy Stafford Endowed Alumni Scholarship and serves on the College’s Student Alumni Associates organization.“Studying abroad in a foreign country and bringing the ideas back into my classroom will help me show my students who I am, where I come from and what I’ve learned. It’s important for students to be aware of multiculturalism as well as learn the concept of cultural sensitivity because it can affect how they treat each other.”
Coming away from what he calls a three-in-one trip, Or is excited to share his culture in the hopes of making a greater impact in his community.
“I got to receive class credit for my minor, I got the chance to leave the country for the first time and I got the opportunity to visit my motherland,” he says. “This trip meant a lot to me because not very many people that I surround myself with know about Cambodia and what the culture is like. They just see it as this poor country that is helpless, but there is so much beauty in this country.”
The atmosphere in Cambodia was humbling to Or, as it was something he had never experienced before.
“It was amazing for me to see people that have so little be so happy and content with their lives,” Or says. “It made me appreciate what I have here in America and what my parents have given to me.”
Although he learned an incredible amount while visiting Cambodia, Or says one of the biggest takeaways was learning the importance of self-reflection and fully embracing who he is.
“My first name is Chakadasovavan and I used to hate telling people that was my first name because it was so different,” Or says. “But now I have come to realize that my name is a part of my cultural identity and I have fully embraced it.”
This summer, Or will have the chance to visit Cambodia again with his parents and to see the country from their point of view.
“My dad hasn’t been back since fleeing the country during the Khmer Rouge, but my mom has visited once,” he says. “I am excited to use what I experienced on this trip to make a greater impact in my community by sharing my culture more to my friends that know nothing about Cambodian people.”
Braelyn Diamond is a junior from Blythewood, South Carolina, studying communication and marketing at the College of Charleston.