When full-time MBA student Sindhura went to Cambodia for volunteer work with Room to Read, she brought a video with our stories and encouragement for the children.
Part 1 – Singapore
“How about visiting Cambodia during recess break? We’ve always wanted to visit Angkor Wat”, is what my husband said to me in early January. I was surprised to hear of vacation plans, because we had made plans twice the previous year and had to cancel in the last minute due to his work schedule. As a result of these experiences, I was arranging to spend the recess break in Laos volunteering for Room To Read (RTR), a non-profit organization I had been volunteering with since moving to Singapore.
I was quickly thinking about the possible negotiations and game theories I had learned during the course of the MBA, so that I could convince my husband to visit Laos instead. I looked up flight tickets to Laos, accommodations and even site visits to schools supported by RTR, but realized that due to a conflict between flight and vacation dates, Laos may not be a possibility. I then used my contingency plan (again something you learn in B School, always have Plan B), and called RTR office in Cambodia to see if they could arrange for a site visit in Cambodia. It worked, I found the Nash Equilibrium! We would go to Cambodia on vacation and for volunteering, a win-win for both of us.
RTR focuses on providing education support via book publication, building schools and libraries and providing scholarship to students in several countries in Asia and Africa. To date, RTR has built 1592 schools and 13,170 libraries and funded 13,726 girl students. They are also one of the most efficient charities with charity navigator rating them with 4 starts since 2006. What drew me the most to RTR was the passion of volunteers, student helping student model and the push to empower and enable rather than simply providing the resources.
In preparing for the site visit to a RTR supported school, I worked with my daughter’s school over the course of the year to make the students and teachers aware of the situation via book reading sessions aimed at generating awareness about the conditions in these developing countries – lack of resources but not enthusiasm and talent. The children benefited from learning about other cultures and realized how lucky they were to have good education and opportunities. The students and teachers were keen to help make a difference. RTRs student helping student program is aimed to do just that. Along with the school’s administration we came up with several pieces of art work and short books which were created by the students to take with me on my site visit.
I then decided to bring in another flavour to the site visit; I hoped to inspire the school children in Cambodia with messages from NUS students and staff about how they benefited from education. I was really enthused by the passion of several NUS students and staff who volunteered their time to tell stories, personal anecdotes and inspirational messages to these students. One staff member related to how he spent time with his kids in the library, some staff members spoke about how they travelled to different countries for education and about their favourite books, a student spoke about how he was determined to provide a better future for his family which suffered from the uncertainties of the farming profession in India and how education helped him achieve this goal, while another student narrated a story about the importance of constantly polishing and improving ones skills and about his passion for Engineering and Mathematics which keeps him going.
Part 2 – Cambodia
The primary school we were visiting was a 2 hour drive from Siem Reap, as we huddled into the bus which would take us there; I was both nervous and excited. What I saw on my way to the village comforted me somewhat. I noticed that the life style of the people was very similar to a village in India. Something told me that I would be able to connect with the students and the teachers easily.
The library which RTR built was small but teeming with children. They were awaiting our arrival eagerly. As I opened my bag filled with books and art work made by students at my daughter’s school in Singapore, I saw the excitement in their eyes. Even though the books were in English, they connected with the pictures and the text. I asked them what their favourite subjects were, what they liked best about reading and their new library. I read several books to them, one specifically about the importance of reading. I also noticed that several children were so curious that they took the books and huddled in the corner to flip through the pages on their own. Next, I showed them the video we shot at NUS and they awed in wonder when I told them, this is my school and these are my class mates, some are engineers, some businessman…would you like to study here some day? The unanimous answer echoed the room…”YES”. Some students want to be doctors, engineers, business men and politicians. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The RTR representative who accompanied us on the trip told us that the kids had prepared a skit for us and that he would translate for us later. However, the kids did such a good job playing their parts that the story about how a farmer lost his son due to lack of access to proper medical facilities and education, didn’t need any translation. We took a tour around the school where the kids showed us their class rooms and their vegetable garden. Despite the lack of resources at the school (with student teacher ratio of 1:60), they didn’t lack the enthusiasm to learn.
For me and my family Cambodia will always remain a great memory and a humbling experience. Now more than ever I see myself pursuing Part 3 of my plan to raise enough funds to build a school in these deserving areas, with extra zeal and sense of accomplishment.
Sindhura Sunkara (Indian)
Full-time student, Class of 2013