By: Christian Kiffner, PhD

Posted: September 9, 2014
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Faculty Post

First Impressions of SFS Cambodia & Vietnam


Why did you choose to study abroad with SFS?
The abroad experience has become such a common part of undergraduate studies, and it is important to practice awareness of what part us students play in host communities. With its rigorous academic focus, The School for Field Studies gives students the opportunity to delve deeper into the social and environmental workings of the countries students study. Three months is such a condensed period of time to learn in a location entirely foreign to you, and it is hard to imagine taking any other approach than that of SFS. The combination of classroom learning and firsthand field experience seems ideal in making the most of what time we have here in Southeast Asia. Hopefully, it puts us in the position to attribute what knowledge and findings we have to the local community.


What are your first impressions of the country?
Cambodia is emerging from decades of political strife and warfare. The remnants of this are still visible, from the bullet holes scattered across the great temples of Angkor Wat to amputee victims of land mines on the streets. Despite this, the Cambodian people are some of the happiest individuals I have come across throughout all of my travels. In our Khmer language and culture class, I got the helpful tip of smiling at the end of each phrase to practice better pronunciation, since this is how the Khmer people speak. It is inspiring to come across such a resilient population and I am eager to learn more of both their past and look into where they are headed in the future.

What are your first impressions of the field station?
The field station is a dream. When I tell most people I am studying in Cambodia, they imagine me deep in the jungle sleeping amidst the snakes and clouded leopards. To my delight (given my bone-chilling fear of snakes) our home base offers us some of the comforts from home. Its distance from downtown Siem Reap is perfect, placing us far enough away to find some tranquility and close enough to hop in a tuk-tuk after class and explore. The open air roof-top eating and hang out area acts as a great reminder of where we are, with the sound of monsoon rains reverberating off the roof and geckos keeping us company. Our proximity to the Angkor Wat temples is incredible, with one of the towers slightly visible from the top floor. We are in the perfect location to get out in the field and learn both about the history and the environment of this place.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you this semester academically and culturally?
The Khmer language is definitely the largest hurdle to overcome. Body language can only take you so far when it comes to communicating, so it is difficult not being able to have deeper discussions and learn from the Cambodian locals about their culture. Not only does the language barrier interfere with immersion efforts, but it will also be an obstacle when it comes to research. Although we have translators to assist in interviews and data collection, there are always certain details that can be lost in translation. That is will be one of the greatest challenges when it comes to Directed Research, and I hope that all information is properly relayed to the data collection to ensure important elements aren’t lost.

What are you looking forward to the most about the semester?
I am extremely excited to get involved with the research at Can Tho University in Vietnam. It is a rare opportunity to be able to work alongside students at an institution halfway around the world, and I am thrilled to spend two weeks learning all about what is going in the Mekong delta.

Give three words that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Passionate, awestruck, and sweaty.

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