Learning how countries develop


“Why on earth would you go there?’’ That’s the question posed to most people who want to visit Cambodia, says Kristen Paonessa, a senior at Northeastern University majoring in international affairs and economics. Paonessa, who aims to pursue a career in international development, fulfilled an experiential learning requirement by interning in Phnom Penh for the Harpswell Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit that provides housing and education to children and women in Cambodia, with the goal of empowering a new generation of female leaders. She lived in a dormitory with 45 Khmer women from rural provinces as they pursued their studies at their respective universities. She taught them English and leadership skills and fostered critical thinking discussions on current events and also took Khmer language lessons. “I believe it is crucial to expose myself to life in a developing country,’’ Paonessa says. “In order to be able to fix global issues, one must see and feel the problems on the ground.’’

LASTING IMPACT: “The Harpswell Foundation appealed to me because it is striving to give local Cambodian women the opportunity to develop the necessary skills in order to become leaders in their country, region, and perhaps the world. I believe in the empowerment of women worldwide.’’

NEW DAY: “At the Harpswell dormitory the lifestyle is ‘early to rise and late to bed.’ The girls have regular cooking and cleaning duties that must be completed before their university classes begin around 7 or 8 a.m. They typically wake up and begin their duties around 5, even if they went to bed around midnight having stayed up late to do all of their homework assignments. I am not accustomed to a group of people regularly waking up so early in the morning … and with so much enthusiasm to start the day.’’

ON THE PLATE: “Meat is a luxury food and only used in dishes when the family has enough money to splurge. There are also various types of fish in addition to a medley of simple vegetables and roots that are often used to flavor Khmer traditional soups. But whatever the dish is, there will always be rice involved.’’

STREET FOOD: “Some of the roadside snacks give me the heebie jeebies. For example, fried tarantulas anyone? My favorite snack is a kebab of four small bananas roasted over coals. The fire from the coals gives the bananas a delicious, sweet taste … and it only costs 15 cents.’’

MONEY TALKS: “Most forms of communication between foreigners and the average Khmer are difficult, except when discussing how much something should cost. When you are a barang (the Khmer word for white foreigner), they will clearly understand how much you are willing to pay them. If not, they will use their calculator or cellphone so that you can type in how much and they can agree or continue to bargain.’’

CLOSE CALL: “My ignorance on Buddhist practice became very evident when I stopped to chat with local monks outside a temple in Battambang. I asked them if I could take a photo with them since the temple had a beautiful view of the surrounding city. I stood in between the two of them and placed my arms around their shoulders. They quickly scurried away from my reach and informed me that monks are not allowed to touch females. Still, they graciously agreed to take a photo with me. I made sure to politely place my hands behind my back.’’

HIGH HOPES: “The Khmer women that I live with take their schoolwork very seriously. For many of them, they are the first in their family to attend college or at least the first woman in their family to receive the opportunity to receive a higher education. Many of the girls have parents, sponsors, or teachers who have set high expectations for them and they consequently strive to live up to everyone’s hopes and dreams for their futures. These girls show true grace and are genuinely the most diligent students that I have ever met.’’