BELLES OF TRINITY
CCF students Hoarng and Sovannry leave Cambodia today to study in Australia and begin the next chapter of their journey
Seng Hoarng and Yem Sovannry have travelled abroad before but this time is different. As they walk through the departure gate at Phnom Penh International Airport today after saying goodbye to friends and family, they will be starting a new life in Melbourne, 6,887 km away from home, for at least the next four years.
Both have won scholarships to take a foundation year at Trinity College followed by a bachelor’s degree at the prestigious University of Melbourne. They will join fellow CCF student Roon Sophy who started at Trinity College, the oldest residential college of the University of Melbourne, last February.
Scott Neeson, Founder and Executive Director of CCF, said: “It’s an absolute joy seeing these kids realise their potential. This is what happens when you are given an opportunity. All we did was given them a chance and they grabbed it.”
- SENG HOARNG
Hoarng, 19, has been with CCF for almost 13 years and her story is remarkable: from remote island life to a stellar student destined for great things.
Home for the first seven years of her life was Barong, a small island in the middle of the Mekong River, in a district of Kandal province, east of Phnom Penh, which completely floods during the rainy season and is only accessible by boat.
While she did attend school, Hoarng would often be absent to look after her younger sister and help her sick mum, who sold snacks . When Hoarng was five, her mother died.
Hoarng was among several children who left the island in March 2006 after Scott Neeson, CCF Founder and Executive Director, visited to meet the parents of two sisters he had encountered living and working on the garbage dump in Phnom Penh.
It was a big adventure for Hoarng who had never left the island before.
“My grandmother didn’t want me to go to the city, she was worried,” says Hoarng. “But I decided that I wanted to go when I heard that CCF would provide an education.
“I remember it was a hard thing to leave behind, at a young age to leave your hometown and family, and all that I had known, but I wanted to go to school.”
Hoarng describes it as the moment her “second life started”.
Her younger sister remained behind with her father.
Adjusting to a world so removed from the slow pace of island life took a while.
“It was a new environment and a big difference from where I had come from,” she says. “I had to adapt to so many people, the city and cars. I was used to being where the place was quiet.
“I was so naive but I soon made friends and I think I’m a really independent person.”
Hoarng thrived at school and grasped every opportunity to get involved in all aspects of CCF life, from academic subjects and leadership, to the arts and PE.
She travelled abroad; to Hong Kong twice for CCF events, to San Diego in the US for the annual Tony Robbins Global Youth Leadership Summit (GYLS) and, last year, to Melbourne for the Young Leaders Program at Trinity College.
Now Hoarng, who turns 20 in June, will return to Melbourne with close friend Sovannry.
“It’s a really big life move for me,” says Hoarng.
“When I first heard about the scholarship, I knew that it was a big chance for me and I wanted it. I knew that I needed to study hard and get the scholarship.”
If all goes well with the Foundation year, Hoarng will go on for a three-year degree at the University of Melbourne, with her major choice psychology or sociology.
“I might feel a little homesick but I need to enjoy school and make new friends and enjoy my new life,” says Hoarng, who comes across as extremely self-assured and comfortable in her own skin.
“It will be really hard to leave my friends here [at CCF], we’ve been together 11 or 12 years.”
Does she ever think about how her life would have turned out if she had not left the island all those years ago?
“I think I would not have had much opportunity, I might not have gone to school much. I would probably still be there and never leave,” she says.
“My life turned upside down the day I left.”
Hoarng’s grandmother died when she was 12 and never got to see what her granddaughter achieved.
Next on the agenda is a Master’s Degree and Hoarng hopes to return to Cambodia and use her education to help her community “which is very important to me.”
“I don’t want CCF to feel disappointed in me, that motivates me to study hard and be the best that I can,” she says.
“You have to do something each day and keep learning. We all need a life motto when you feel stressed or sad. Mine is “Make every day count’ and that is what I intend to do.”
- YEM SOVANNRY, aged 18
Sovannry did not go to school until she was seven.
Her family was too poor to send more than one child to school and it was her brother who was given an education.
Fast forward 11 years and Sovannry is off to Australia after winning a coveted scholarship place at Trinity College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne.
It’s an extraordinary achievement given her early start in life.
“It feels amazing,” says Sovannry.
“It’s a big change to leave my life behind here and begin again. It is going to be a defining moment for me.”
While she appears calm on the surface, it’s clear that leaving Cambodia is a huge step for the teenager.
Sovannry grew up in Kampong Cham, a province in Southeastern Cambodia, where her dad was a farmer on a rubber plantation.
“My family could only afford to send one child to school and that was my brother,” she says.
“In Cambodia, boys will always get the place at school. I think things are changing – I see more girls in school and there are more opportunities for girls and young women to get an education. It’s getting a lot better.”
Sovannry’s aunt, then a student at CCF, recommended her young niece apply to join CCF’s education program. By then, she was living with her grandmother in Phnom Penh after moving there with her mother.
“It was difficult at first to handle a new environment,” says Sovannry, of her start at CCF.
“I remember crying every day to go back home. I was so lonely. It took a few months to adapt and one of the staff took care of me, which helped.”
Visiting her family every weekend, Sovannry began to settle and loved being at school.
“I had a lot of catching up to do after not attending school for seven years,” she says. “I really enjoyed learning, I was thirsty to learn.”
Sovannry has gone on to become one of CCF’s star students, blossoming into a thoughtful, articulate young woman who is as passionate about her music – she sings and plays the guitar – as her academic studies, at which she excels.
She has also overcame the crippling shyness that marked her childhood.
“I was really, really shy. So shy that I wouldn’t speak to anyone,” says Sovannry.
The big breakthrough came when she was selected from 200 CCF applicants to represent Cambodia at the Global Youth Leadership Summit (GYLS) in the US in 2014, an event which Sovannry says “changed everything.”
“We learned about personal development, how to love ourselves and realise that we are capable of doing anything.
“I was able to reflect and look back at what I had done and how far I had come.”
Her “magic moment” saw her breaking a wooden block on which she had written the fears that she wanted to ‘break through.’
“It was really powerful. I realise that I’m not alone in this world, there are other shy kids. It’s about being really committed to change, having a strong mindset. I was able to express myself and open up.”
Sovannry returned to GYLS as an alumni in 2016, a much more confident girl than before.
A year later, she won a place on the same Young Leaders Program at Trinity College as Hoarng, an experience she calls “the best two weeks of my life.”
“If GYLS was my transition from child to teenager, then Trinity was my transition from teenager to adult,” she says.
Now she is facing another transition. She will touch down at Melbourne Airport at 8.45am on Wednesday morning (13th) to begin the next chapter in her story.
“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” says Sovannry, who will celebrate her 19th birthday on March 20.
“It’s the biggest challenge of my life so far and I want it to go well.”
Sovannry is not the first in her family to go on to higher education – her brother is already in university – but she’s a trailblazer for girls in her family (her mum went to middle school only) and a role model for her younger sister to follow.
“My mum tells me every single time that she is proud of me and my family is so supportive,” says Sovannry.
Her ambition is to study media and communications with her sights set on a career behind the camera producing video and films.
Her advice to fellow CCF students who want to follow in her footsteps?
“Work hard and do your best. Take your opportunities. It can happen, just look at me.”
Interviews: Kate Ginn/CCF
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