At the beginning of the spring semester, we asked student Gil Haven about his first impressions of Cambodia. Now, as the semester comes to a close, he shared his thoughts with us again.
What did you like most about the SFS experience?
The experience that I have had this past semester has been different than anything I have ever had in my life, and I’m not going to forget what I learned here any time soon. This opportunity has allowed me to learn in this amazing new place, alongside brilliant peers, from interesting professors, and I cannot be more thankful for all of this. When I signed up to come on this program I was looking for a program was completely different than my classes back in the States. A program that challenged me in new ways. A program that expanded my horizons. This program succeeded beyond my wildest dreams in doing these things. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn about conservation and the environment on the ground in a place where the environment is really on the brink of over-exploitation. The ability to see firsthand the threats to the environment and talk to the stakeholders directly has been eye-opening. This program wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, but I have learned so many invaluable lessons.
You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
Cambodia is a truly fascinating country. Throughout this semester I have been able learn so much about the country and its people that I would never have learned if I just came here as a tourist. I have started to feel comfortable living within the culture here, which has been helped along by all of the interaction I have been fortunate to have with people who grew up here. Of course there are still some cultural things that shock or confuse me, but for the most part I expect to find those kinds of things everywhere. One of the biggest things I have notices and reflected on about Cambodia in general is the socioeconomics of the country. The cost of living is very low here and there are a lot of people who are living hand to mouth. This is something that we have seen a lot of in our travels and something that still rocks me to my core. But really Cambodia is just like the United States or any other country in many, many ways. So much so that it is starting to feel like home.
What is life at the Center really like? What are the best and the most challenging parts?
The Center is like living in a college residence hall that has the best food you can imagine, beautiful scenery, and amazing people. Or like you’re going to school while living in a tropical hotel. Basically I love the Center and will be sad to leave. My favorite part of the center is the open-air dining room. Each day everyone gathers there for all three meals, and when I say “gathers” I truly mean that the dining area is the gathering point for the Center. It is where for a couple hours each day everyone can come together and be themselves, no matter what their position is within SFS. I also just love the feeling of eating outdoors, of hearing the birds and the geckos, feeling the breeze, and seeing the sun wash over everything. The most challenging part of the Center is the proximity to others. Everyone lives, studies, relaxes so close together that sometimes it can be hard be alone. I like my alone time in order to recharge my batteries and get ready for whatever is next, and I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who likes this. Unfortunately there really isn’t that much space for this at the Center. You live with three roommates and there is always someone in all the other places. As the semester has progressed I have been able to find time for myself, but it hasn’t always been easy.
What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
When I wrote my “first impressions” blog I predicted that staying focused on my schoolwork would be the biggest academic challenge for me this semester. Turns out I was right. It is hard to want to work on schoolwork instead of exploring a brand new country or even just spending time outside in the beautiful weather. Another academic thing that has been difficult for me this semester has been staying present in the program. I learned the hard way that when you go halfway around the world for a semester your responsibilities at home doesn’t stop. In a ‘normal’ spring semester I would have to figure out my summer plans during the semester as well as complete other important applications and paperwork, so I still had to do these things during this semester. This semester I found myself working on these things at seemingly all the most inopportune times, when big assignments were also due, when we were traveling, etc. Because of this it took a lot of energy to balance the pulls from home and the requirements of the program.
Culturally I found the biggest challenge to be not between me and local people, but between me and other foreigners. Lots of people come to Cambodia for vacations but while they are here they choose to act very differently than they would in their home countries. They act in ways that are not appropriate in Cambodian culture and are just rude. I believe that when you visit somewhere new you should learn about local cultures and be respectful to them, not go out of your way to do the opposite. I was frequently felt ashamed to be a foreigner in Cambodia when I saw another foreigner acting in inappropriate ways, I can’t even imagine what local people thought when they saw those same things.
What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
I have so many amazing memories from this semester. Some of the ones that are the most vivid right now are from my recent research project at the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri province. I spend two weeks studying semi-captive elephants there with some of my peers, Jane and Beatrix. During this time following elephants around in the forest, the three of us got up to a whole lot of hijinks. Our jokes and fun spread to our whole group including our professor, Megs, and our local guides, Toin and Red. These two weeks in the woods were amazingly beneficial for my continued learning about conducting research as well as extraordinarily entertaining. This showed me that you truly can mess around and have fun, and conduct important research at the same time.
Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
I’ve created a story about how I feel right now using three word-sentences: Proud of myself. Ready to sleep. Staying an option? Home is calling.