When my favorite government professor mentioned a future winter course in Cambodia to me last year, I listened excitedly about an opportunity I didn’t think I’d ever be able to pursue personally. But thanks to generous financial support and my ILR International Travel Grant, I was able to take this incredible class myself. The course--Chinese Empire and the Cambodian Experience--not only confirmed my desire to pursue a career in international law, but also enhanced my knowledge of international labor regulations and the research I had already done in the Scheinman Institute about Cambodian factory workers and unions. My minors of Law and Society and International Relations and my ILR background spurred me forward during the 18-day course; I didn’t feel like an uneducated, unaware tourist just cruising around the countryside. I felt like a prepared scholar able to interpret my surroundings to glean more knowledge about the world around me.
I had trouble believing that I was really going across the world over winter break until I actually stepped out of the plane in Siem Reap and into the dense, sunny air of Cambodia. I expected to learn a bit about another culture, do some comparative political analysis, meet people, and definitely buy some sweet souvenirs. And all of that happened. But I was not ready for the culture shock that would greet me in what seemed like a new world entirely: tuk tuks zoomed left and right, traffic laws didn't exist, rapidly spoken Khmer flooded the air, and people smiled--smiled!--at me as I jogged slowly through the humidity on my morning runs. I learned outside of the classroom, on moving buses, in caves and abandoned water tanks, and over informal conversations.
There is nothing like learning about an event and then seeing its location for yourself; it's one thing to drone on about China's involvement in Cambodia and quite another to see the airfield that China built in Kampong Chhnang (and the surrounding gas tanks, water reservoirs, and a Khmer Rouge hideout). My class wandered palace grounds, noticed the documents missing in the National Archive in Phnom Penh, and discussed contemporary Asian political issues as we wandered through the stunning ruins of Angor Wat; we met the authors of our assigned books and asked them questions that couldn't be disclosed in print, walked through Tuol Sleng in silence with a staggering understanding of Democratic Kampuchea and its effects beyond the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek and Pol Pot, and tried enough Khmer food to know that we really like it (also, fried frog legs aren't so bad). It is impossible to convey the immense beauty of a rice patty at sunset or Angor Wat and the temple ruins in the morning or even just a busy street in Phnom Penh, but it is really something else to see them all firsthand.
My professor and TA were immensely accommodating about helping me pursue my interests in labor. They altered the course of the trip to let me see a factory, let me ask our loyal bus driver about his work situation and compensation, and answered endless questions about unionization and factory workers. My Scheinman Institute projects and Professor Gross’s Worker’s Rights as Human Rights course both spurred me on. I learned about the exodus of young people to the capital cities and Thailand to find consistent, non-seasonal work, even if it pays next to nothing. I began to understand the complexities of living and working in an agrarian society. I learned what happens behind the scenes when colossal international aid is given with “no strings attached;” ownership is vague, factory conditions decline, and workers can’t complain when they have nowhere else to go.
This course made me reconsider my surroundings and career path in the best way. I plan on pursuing my interest in international labor regulations further, perhaps with the ILO. In sum, I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. I left Cambodia with a more thorough understanding of international labor issues and how people live and work on the other side of the world. I would not have pursued this course or gleaned as much as I did from it without my ILR education and the International Travel Fund.