When you ask Sreytom Tim what she hopes to do after she graduates, she will excitedly tell you about her dreams of starting her own business to help small farmers, becoming CEO of a nongovernmental organization focusing on women and children, and being the first woman to work in economics in her home country of Cambodia. Sreytom is now working toward those dreams at the University of Minnesota, thanks to her determination and some help from the SHE-CAN organization.
Sreytom is the oldest daughter in a family of seven children, growing up in a small, rural town outside Phnom Penh where her parents sold fish at the local market. From a young age, Sreytom had been told to do what is expected of many young girls in Cambodia: finish her primary education and then get a job and get married so she could take care of her family. Sreytom, however, wanted to do more for her family and her community, so she continued to go to school and completed her primary and secondary education in Cambodia.
Sretyom’s life changed when her mother passed away five years ago. Her father remarried and left her responsible for caring for her four younger siblings (ranging in age from 8-16). Despite this responsibility, Sreytom continued to excel in her education, graduating with the highest score in her high school on the National Exam and earning a scholarship to attend the Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
Knowing she could not support all of her siblings while she attended the University, Sreytom placed three of her younger siblings in the care of an orphanage and moved with her oldest sister to the city. While there, Sreytom’s EducationUSA adviser told her about SHE-CAN, a program that assists young female leaders from post-conflict countries attend college in the United States. She was immediately intrigued by the organization’s goal of supporting low-income women who want to make a difference in their home country after graduation.
“I am so happy that SHE-CAN works to empower women, because in my society women are less valued than men in their career or even the opportunity to go to school,” Sreytom says. “Most women in my community are expected to help and take care of the family and home, get married, and stay home, so most Cambodian people believe women do not need extended education and young women might drop out after completing primary school. So I appreciate that SHE-CAN works to give more opportunities to women.”
One thing SHE-CAN does not do is offer scholarships. SHE-CAN uses a mentorship model where professional women in the U.S. help the SHE-CAN scholars prepare for their college entrance exams and select and apply to schools in the SHE-CAN Scholarship Coalition, which includes the University of Minnesota. Sreytom’s mentors helped her select the University of Minnesota, and they helped connect her with staff in Admissions, International Student and Scholar Services, and the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance. Working together, Sreytom and UMN staff assembled a funding package that allowed Sreytom to make the 8,415 mile journey to begin her education at the University of Minnesota.
“If I were to have stayed in Cambodia, I might have worked in a bank for a low salary and could not make changes in Cambodian society,” Sreytom says. “SHE-CAN and the UMN created a new life for me. What I have now is much better than what I used to have. I have a better life, a better education, and, most importantly, a very, very bright future. I could not be here without SHE-CAN and everyone here. They have not only made a huge impact on my life—they have made a huge impact on my society.”
Sreytom is majoring in Family Social Science in the College of Education and Human Development, and she is considering adding a major or minor in Economics. She has quickly made friends here after becoming a board member of the Cambodian Student Association of Minnesota. She regularly is responsible for internal public relations so she regularly communicates with other student groups representing cultures around the world, and she lives with roommates from Norway, Malaysia and Finland.
“In the beginning, I felt stressed because everything was new—the education system was different, the language was hard for me so I didn’t always understand people, and I didn’t know anybody yet… I’d just go class and then go home. But later on, I started getting better. Now, I enjoy my friends and my new life in the United States.”
Sreytom has monthly calls with her SHE-CAN mentors where they discuss her progress and give advice about adjusting to American culture and succeeding in school. She also has regular conversations with her siblings back home. During these exchanges, her brothers and sisters ask her about her life in the U.S. (including questions about trains and the changing of the leaves, things they do not see in Cambodia), and Sreytom is able to stay up-to-date on their lives.
It is clear Sreytom is already fulfilling SHE-CAN’s mission of being a role model for those in Cambodia. “My siblings all want to study in the U.S. with me,” she says. They want to be doctors, dentists, and nurses—dreams that could easily be impossible for children (especially daughters) of fish vendors in Cambodia. By watching their sister, however, Sreytom’s siblings are seeing that success is possible, as long as you are willing to work for it.
Date Published: December 2016