06/10/2013 03:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pomp & Circumstance in Rural Cambodia

Empowering girls to access higher education, Lotus Outreach works to replenish educated citizenry 30 years after it was decimated during Khmer Rouge genocide and celebrates its first graduating class of college students in Cambodia, marking a turning point in Cambodia's decades-long tumultuous history.

This June, approximately 800,000 college seniors will be conferred bachelor's degrees in the United States, joining the ranks of the 30 percent of Americans to possess baccalaureate education. Higher educational attainment is strongly correlated with increased earning potential, with median earnings jumping an astonishing 60 percent for those with bachelor's degrees (compared to those with only high school diplomas). It is thus no surprise that many developed nations make higher education a priority -- be it through subsidized grants and loans or public universities -- in their pursuit of economic growth and development.

There is perhaps a deeper social benefit to promoting higher education, however, and one does not need to look further than Cambodia to see what happens when a nation is robbed of its educated citizenry. Today, only 26 percent of Cambodians will graduate high school as a direct result of a genocide which took place in the mid to late 1970s. When the Khmer Rouge overtook Cambodia in 1975, it abolished currency and the banking system, shut down the public education system, evacuated urban centers and forced the entire population into the countryside to dig irrigation canals and till land. It wasn't long before disease and starvation took hold, and hundreds of thousands of people perished.

The Khmer Rouge eliminated all remnants of "old society" through deadly purges of the intellectual class. Religious figures, doctors, teachers, lawyers, professionals, and even people who wore eye glasses were targets. In just four short years, the entire country's educated class was systematically murdered and thrown into mass graves -- including 90 percent of the country's teachers. Of the educated class members that survived, the majority fled the country never to return.

Today, Cambodia is only beginning to heal from the scars left by the Khmer Rouge. An entire generation missed out on public education, and today only 2 percent of women in the country have baccalaureate education. This dearth of professionals is directly linked to infant and maternal mortality, poor education quality and sluggish growth of the white collar sector. Further, the legacy of poverty left by the genocide means the very people who promise to help Cambodia develop -- its future doctors, lawyers, bankers and businesspeople -- are unable to reach their potential for want of a few dollars each month in school-related expenses.

Take 20-year-old Mealea. Her illiterate parents were survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and were forced by poverty and high-interest debt to migrate illegally to Thailand in search of work, leaving Mealea and her five siblings -- all under the age of 13 -- alone to fend for themselves. Though Mealea struggled to help feed and care for her siblings, she always placed a high value on her education. "When I was in the fourth grade, I started to work making rice wine and feeding pigs," she shares. "I often got to school late because of those chores and the long distance from home to school. However, my school performance was not bad; I was always among the top 10 in my class."


Recognizing both her aptitude and her precarious situation, the international non-profit Lotus Outreach began providing Mealea with a GATE scholarship in junior high school to prevent her from dropping out. This scholarship not only covered Mealea's school fees, supplies, healthcare, books, uniforms, bicycle and lunch money, but provided her with a large bag of rice each month to ensure her young siblings wouldn't go hungry if Mealea continued going to school instead of work.

Lotus Outreach shared Mealea's pride when she passed rigorous exams to graduate high school in 2010, and was admitted on a full tuition scholarship to the Vanda Institute in the capital, Phnom Penh. Mealea continues to receive support from Lotus Outreach for her living expenses, food, travel and school supplies through the organization's GATEways university program, and looks forward graduating this summer with a degree in accounting. In the meantime, she continues to excel in her studies and has expressed a deep and passionate commitment to helping other children in Cambodia. In addition to studying full-time, working part-time to help pay down her parents' debt and learning English on the weekends, Mealea volunteers at her school as well as with the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center.

"I feel very deep gratitude to the donors for supporting me," shares Mealea. "When I was sick, Lotus Outreach cared for me. When my bicycle broke and I couldn't get to school, they helped me fix it. Lotus Outreach educated me and offered me every opportunity they could. They have been like my parents, and I will not be satisfied until I have been able to repay their generosity by helping others!"

Mealea at her College Library

Mealea is not alone. Since 2010, Lotus Outreach International has been providing scholarships to poor young women from the Cambodian countryside, and this year's graduation season will witness the conferment of higher degrees in nursing, accounting and pedagogy to eight of the approximately 100 girls currently under scholarship support. In addition, nearly 150 girls will graduate high school this summer as a result of scholarship support provided through Lotus Outreach's flagship program in Cambodia, GATE (Girls' Access to Education). Lotus Outreach will mark the occasion with our third annual graduation ceremonies to be held in remote villages of Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap, the Cambodian provinces from which the girls hail. Many, if not most, of the GATE girls express a desire to give back to their communities through studying to become nurses, midwives, lawyers, teachers, economists, agronomists and NGO workers. It costs just $100 a month to fully support the university education of a girl like Mealea, bringing her family, community and nation one step closer to healing from the scars of the past.

Watch a short video about the GATE scholarship:

A GATE scholar at her home

All photos copyright Lotus Outreach

About Lotus Outreach
Lotus Outreach is a California-based 501 (c)(3) dedicated to ensuring the education, health and safety of vulnerable women and children in the developing world. The GATE Women and Youth Scholarship program is one of several successful projects it operates in Asia today.