The gift of education to Cambodian youth

After helping establish a Jesuit school in Timor Leste, Fr Quyen Vu SJ thought he had all the experience he needed to set up a school in Cambodia. But, he writes, he encountered many challenges.

Timor Leste achieved independence at a high price. Militias looted houses and destroyed almost all infrastructure after the referendum of 1999. I was one of the Jesuits from Australia who volunteered to assist during the crisis.

Students at Xavier Jesuit School in Sisophon, Cambodia

Students at Xavier Jesuit School in Sisophon, Cambodia

I was in Timor Leste for over six years as part of my involvement in the education apostolate and the team that started Colégio de Santo Inácio de Loiola in Kasait, the first Jesuit high school in Timor Leste.

When I was asked to be part of another team to start another first Jesuit school, this time in Cambodia, I thought I had all the experience I needed. But as I began to work with the team in Sisophon, I realised my experiences in Timor Leste were not enough.

We encountered many challenges, including Cambodia having a different government structure, culture, tradition, language, religion and ways of proceeding. A lot of hard work needed to be done and a lot of patience was required.

Working in both Timor Leste and Cambodia, I have learnt the value of patience and flexibility. One must be able to adjust. Without patience and flexibility, one cannot achieve one’s mission and ensure that the project is moving in the right direction.

Starting a new school has its rewards despite the challenges. One of the biggest is seeing the smiles on the faces of the students whom we are serving. Education is vital to helping young people support their family and assist their community and country.

During my graduate studies at Boston College, one professor reminded us that the key to running a good school is to create a culture and environment conducive to learning. Buildings are needed, but it is the culture and environment that are most important.

At Xavier Jesuit School in Sisophon, our master plan from day one has been shaped by five phrases: a Happy Learning Community, Khmer Village, Silence, Safety, and Nature.

A Happy Learning Community includes all students, teachers, parents and guardians who experience a fun environment in which to learn with and from each other.

The Khmer Village emphasises that traditional solidarity and cultural forms appropriate to healthy rural villages will also characterise our school life.

Silence — the spiritual search for wisdom is common to Buddhism and Christianity and other religions. This project underlines and promotes these values.

Safety means students should feel safe from all hints of menace and violence.

Nature — the school is located in a beautiful natural environment, and seeks to raise awareness of the call of Laudato Si’ for ecological conversion. This includes a conscious effort to restore Cambodia’s natural woodland, forests, fruit, and vegetable plants.

These five phrases are shaping our school culture. They help us build a strong school environment in addition to the buildings that are popping up each year.

Our principal goal is the transformation of the current pedagogy of rote learning to an inquiry-based, participative pedagogy; the transformation of the young people from passive to active learners, and of our teachers from being providers to being mentors.

We will continue to pursue this goal of providing a quality education for the next generation of Cambodian youth, and to fulfill our dream of a brighter future for them.

Fr Quyen Vu SJ

This article appears in the latest edition of Companions magazine, which focuses on Australia’s engagement with the Asia Pacific region of which it is part.