The city of Lowell has one of the largest settlements of Cambodian refugees in the country. As the next generation grows up, more and more Cambodian-American students are attending UMass Lowell – where many find their way to a unique course, Cambodian Language and Culture, taught by George Chigas.
Chigas, lecturer in the Cultural Studies Department and an expert on the “killing fields” of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, says that he’s taught about 30 Cambodian-American students. The Cambodian-American Student Association on campus has 80 members (not all Cambodian).
Traveling to Phnom Penh in January, Chigas represented the University in signing a partnership agreement (called a Memorandum of Understanding) for student and faculty exchange with the Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). A private university, PUC conducts all instruction in English, facilitating study-abroad options.
“Many Cambodian-American students have never visited their original culture,” says Chigas. “When students go to Cambodia, they learn to see and appreciate the culture, its values and benefits, in a new and positive way.”
First Exchange Student Begins Semester in Phnom Penh
The first UMass Lowell student to study in Cambodia is Sokontheari Soun, a senior psychology major with a minor in Asian Studies. Soun won a fellowship from the Freeman Foundation to support her studies. At PUC, she will take courses on Cambodian language, culture, architecture and design.
“I expect to feel some culture shock (in Cambodia), but also more connected to my culture and history,” says Soun. “My studies have made me value my culture more. Now I want to feel both the Cambodian and American parts of me.”
Chigas says that the value of the exchange program for the individual student is enormous, especially because of the cultural disconnect that often exists between immigrant parents and their children.
“The parents, as refugees, have been traumatized by their experiences. They behave in ways their children find perplexing,” he says. “So, visiting Cambodia is a transformative experience of living in a different culture that adds some understanding to the family past.”
Connecting with her family’s culture is important to Soun, who has saved up to help her mother visit during the semester.
“My mother has never been back to Cambodia, since leaving the refugee camp in the 1980s,” she says. “We can see the country together.”
Multiple Ties With Cambodia
Other connections are developing between Cambodia and UMass Lowell.
The Cambodian-American student group on campus, CASA, raised $8,000 last year, with the intention to support English instruction in a rural community in Cambodia, since learning English is key to academic and economic advancement there.
To identify a village appropriate for the project, Dany Chea, a club member visiting Cambodia with her family, is consulting with staff at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The center has been at the forefront of documenting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era, with the objective of guiding the country to a more peaceful and prosperous future.
One of the staff members of the center, Chamrouen Ly, has enrolled in the graduate degree program in Peace and Conflict Studies at UMass Lowell, to start this fall. Chigas believes she will be the first Cambodian national to study at the University.