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Blazing an educational trail for Cambodian immigrants

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

Sun Staff

LOWELL When Phala Chea arrived in Orgeon in 1981, she sat in her fourth-grade class and watched.

She never spoke. She could barely understand.

With no English, she couldn't communicate with her classmates or teacher. When an educator would need to talk to her, they would call in one of the few other Cambodian students in the school to translate.

"All I knew was how to say my name. 'My name is ...' And that was it," Chea said.

On Sunday, the student who learned English playing with neighborhood friends, who walked for a month from Cambodia to Thailand before arriving in the United States, will become the first Cambodian immigrant to graduate with a doctorate, in leadership in education from UMass Lowell. School officials also believe, at 31, she may be the youngest to ever graduate with a doctorate from the graduate school of education.

The "first" designation was not something she thought about during her six years of research and writing while completing her doctoral thesis.

But she's quite certain she won't be the last.

"Sometimes, I wish I was not so new into this field. I wish there were many others ahead of me," she said. "I hope there will be many others after me."


Now the director of Lowell's Parent Information Center, Chea spent the first years of her career as a teacher in Lowell. A political science/sociology major at UMass Lowell, she said teaching had never crossed her mind until after she graduated.

A conversation with then-Superintendent George Tsapatsaris convinced her to earn her master's degree in education.

By the time she started her student teaching, she had fallen in love with the profession.

"I love the children. I love being able to teach them information. It's very captivating for me," she said.

Continuing on with her education, completing her doctorate, became the natural progression. But holding a full-time job, first as a teacher, then as an administrator and, most recently, director of the Parent Information Center, made the work a challenge.

Her professors say her work, despite the pressures of time, was exemplary.

"She's been an excellent student all the way along, very conscientious, and she's an outstanding educator," said Donald Pierson, dean of the graduate school of education. "I'm confident she will be progressing to even greater leadership positions than the one she already holds."

Chea said her parents helped her, pushed her, motivated her to keep working.

For them, education would translate into the best for their children, she said.

"They want their children to go to the top," Chea said. "And that's all they can offer education."

Today's graduation will be a family affair, with relatives coming from as far away as Canada and Cambodia to celebrate.

For Chea, it's been a long journey from her early life in Phnom Penh, her first years in America, to here a high-ranking job in the Lowell schools, years of research leading to a degree.

"I sit here sometimes, and I'm thinking 'What am I doing here? How did I get here?'" she said. "To be able to be here and live so peacefully and have so much ..."


The journey from Cambodia to Lowell began with the rise to power of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Chea, a child at the time, can remember being evacuated from the city of Phnom Penh to the countryside.

She remembers the train they were herded on to, the starvation after that. One sister died of hunger.

"The tragedies and the nightmare," she said. "You don't forget."

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Chea's family decided it was time to escape. They walked from Cambodia to Thailand, with no possessions, avoiding minefields, afraid of thieves along the way. They arrived at a refugee camp no more than a large, open field after a month of walking.

More families began arriving, and soon, there were camps for those escaping Cambodia.

After a year and a half in Thailand, a cousin of Chea's mother sponsored the family to come to the United States. They arrived in Oregon shortly afterward.

Chea, then 9 years old, knew little English, but began attending fourth grade. Over the summer, she picked up the language as she played with the other kids in her neighborhood. By fifth grade, she could understand most of what the teacher was saying.

Her sophomore year of high school, her family moved to Lowell both to be closer to her mother's relatives in Canada and with the plan to open a Cambodian convenience store in the city. Suddenly, she found herself in a place with other people who looked like her.

"It was an eye-opener," she said.

She attended Greater Lowell Technical High School, then went on to UMass Lowell. She majored in biology at first, then political science and sociology.

After deciding to go into education, she worked through both the master's and doctoral programs to earn her degrees.

Her thesis focused on Cambodian adolescents and the effect of cultural and ethnic conflicts on academic performance. It was a topic she could relate to, having walked the fine line between cultural traditions and integration in American society.

She also saw it in her middle school students.

"I would see them experience so many conflicts at school, so many conflicts at home," she said. "Educators need to give kids the opportunity to share their culture and accept their students' backgrounds."

She's happy to see more Cambodian students involved in extracurricular activities, see more students go on to college, to places outside of Lowell, expanding their horizons. As she looks toward the future, she and her UMass colleagues hope that the door to a doctorate for other Cambodians does not close behind her.

"I'm sure she'll be the first of many," Pierson said. "It's a sign of the future."

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is .