Sitting cross-legged on the floor with a dozen children at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell (CMAA), Manning School of Business junior Sopheak Mean has the room’s undivided attention as he leads a vocabulary exercise.
The children, who are there for the CMAA’s drop-in after-school program, take turns selecting a piece of paper from a wicker tray. On each piece of paper is a word in the Cambodian language Khmer that they read aloud to the group and then translate into English.
Mean, the CMAA’s youth program coordinator assistant, says there’s no other place he’d rather spend his time outside of his accounting and finance studies.
“As a kid who grew up in Lowell without the opportunities of other kids in the community, I want to help the next generation,” says Mean, who began volunteering at the CMAA while in high school and now works at the nonprofit organization around 25 hours a week. “I don’t want them to go through what the past generations went through.”
Like many Cambodians who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide, Mean’s mother, Phimean Sarin, emigrated to Lowell looking for a new life.
“She’s my idol,” says Mean, who was born in Lowell and never knew his father. Mean says his mother was so traumatized by her experiences that she was unable to work, so the two of them survived on food stamps and Social Security checks.
“The Khmer Rouge genocide affected so many families mentally and physically, and she was one of them,” Mean says of his mother. “But she’s provided me with so many insights about life, not only through her struggles, but also by just talking to me. Considering her situation, I realize how much she’s done for me.”
Mean discovered a knack for business (particularly accounting) in high school. In his senior year, he worked as a bank teller at the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union branch located inside Lowell High.
He also discovered the CMAA in his senior year when he joined its Young Professional Leadership Program. Along with developing a passion for mentoring others, he received much-needed guidance and resources for applying to college.
“UMass Lowell was always my choice,” says Mean, who wanted to stay in the community and help others while earning his business degree.
He got that chance his sophomore year when he was offered a paid mentorship at the CMAA through a program run by Assoc. Prof. of Education Phitsamay Uy. The mentoring program pairs first-generation college students from UML with Lowell youngsters in after-school programs at the CMAA and Coalition for a Better Acre.
That opportunity opened the door to his eventual part-time job as assistant to Youth Program Coordinator Ida Borin, a UML alum who earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2017.
Mean, who is on track to earn his master’s degree in business administration through the Plus 1 Program, tries to use the business concepts he’s learning with kids in the after-school program.
“Accounting is more than just recording numbers on a spreadsheet; it’s analyzing it and seeing how you can use that information to be useful in different business scenarios,” he says. “I want to take everything I’m learning in college – about finances, business and life in general – and use it in a way to help my community, especially the youth.”
While Mean looks forward to getting his CPA and embarking on his accounting career, he also plans to continue giving back to the CMAA.
“This place is like a second family to me,” he says. “There’s nowhere else in the world where I would rather work.”