In small village down a red dirt road outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, an 18-year-old girl named Phounam wakes up before the sun. She fills two big buckets of water at the well and uses them to bathe with soap. She puts on her clean school uniform, carefully combs her hair into a ponytail, and climbs down the steps of her wooden house. On a normal day she would ride her bicycle half an hour to get to school, but today is not a normal day. Somewhere else in Siem Reap, the First Lady of the United States of America is waking up and preparing to meet Phounam and nine other girls like her at her school!
The girls, who are all part of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, have received support since beginning secondary school. Now they are about to graduate, a milestone very few people in their village have reached . In fact, in Cambodia only 36% of females are enrolled in secondary school and it’s estimated that only 20% nationally make it through to graduation — and of those, only one quarter are girls.
As a part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama came to Cambodia to meet these incredible achievers, hear their stories, and learn more about how community-driven solutions like Room to Read are helping to turn the tide against gender inequality in education. Phounam, like all of these girls, has had her share of obstacles to overcome to get to where she is today; and she will have many more to overcome if she wants to get where she wants to go: medical school.
In villages like Phounam’s, many tell her that she’s aiming too high to want to become a medical doctor — they tell her it’s not possible. But today, in Phounam’s high school, First Lady Michelle Obama sat across from her and told her to ignore them.
“There were people who told me that I wasn’t smart enough to go to college and go to law school — but I ignored them. And I want you to ignore them too.” Michelle tells the girls.
After hearing Mrs. Obama's story, Phounam says she is inspired by her example and so grateful to have such role models.
However, Phounam’s first and most ardent advocate for her education is her mom, who herself did not get past the 2nd grade. “When I was in grade 6, I saw lots of friends in my village dropping out, but my mom encouraged me to keep studying,” says Phounam. Before Phounam joined Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, Phounam’s mother promised her that she would do everything she could to keep her in school.
However, she still wasn’t sure — even with extra jobs — if she would be able to manage enough to cover everything Phounam would need to go to school: a bicycle to travel the many miles to school, books, uniforms, and not to mention the fact that if Phounam goes to school, then she cannot contribute to the farming. Phounam’s mother sometimes covers Phounam’s share of work on the community farm so that Phounam can study.
“I have a lot of children, and I know that I don’t really have any education. I also know that only education can help them have a better life,” says Phounam’s mother, her voice starting to quiver. “I know that we are very poor but I want them to have a good education. I want them to have a good job, a much better job than me,” she says pointing her fingers insistently with tears filling her eyes. “Sometimes it seemed too hard and part of me thinks they should just drop out but the other part of me knows that only education can help, so we need to try our best.”
When they found out that Phounam would receive support from Room to Read, they were overjoyed. With Room to Read, Phounam and her mom were confident that she would be able to finish secondary school.
As part of the Girls’ Education Program, Phounam receives much more than material support — she also receives workshops in life skills. So Phounam can learn not just chemistry, but also career planning skills, how to set goals and time management to meet those goals in addition to critical thinking and emotional skills to navigate her context as the confident, driven woman she is becoming.
Having learned a lot through her life skills classes about the importance of basic hygiene for health and preventing diseases, Phounam was eager to start caring for her community by spreading this vital health knowledge. Not waiting for a medical degree, Phounam and her friends started their own health initiative, travelling around the surrounding villages and teaching health classes to primary school children. Creating charts and lesson plans, Phounam estimates she’s taught at least 100 people about ways they can prevent diseases. “When I go to other villages, they call me ‘teacher’ and it makes me feel so happy and proud,” says Phounam.
Beyond the rigors of her long bike ride to get to school and helping her family farm and studying hard, Phounam must overcome other fears and dangers as well. With little electricity in her community, when Phounam’s classes finish after sunset she has to ride into the darkness of the night. Phounam tells the story of a time that a “crazy-looking” man tried to attack her on the way home, and another time that she was chased by a pack of wild dogs. Tears stream down her face as she recalls how terrifying these moments felt, but even then she knew she could not let herself quit.
“My friend Sohang and I promised ourselves and each other that we would try our very best to finish our education because we don’t want to disappoint Room to Read and all the other people who have supported us…Also, I don’t want to disappoint my parents…they have worked so hard to get me through school. I want to get a good job to support them as they get older.”
This is the story Phounam shared with both the First Lady of the United States and the First Lady of Cambodia (read more from Michelle Obama’s travel journal in Cambodia here). After meeting Mrs. Obama, Phounam has a new role model to follow, but Mrs. Obama tells Phounam that she is the one who is the role model — a role model to the world.