As a former Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) student, Chuon Udom is an ideal role model for children starting out on their own journey of transformation.
He has overcome the same challenges that they are now facing, rising from a poor childhood in one of the most deprived parts of Cambodia to make it all the way to university.
He’s a wonderful example of the power of education to change lives and how a child can shine given an opportunity.
I want to inspire them, for them to see that I came from where they are now
Which is what makes Udom perfect to work in CCF's Sponsorship Team, working directly with children who are in the same position that he once was.
“I want to inspire them, for them to see that I came from where they are now,” he says.
“I know that some kids have problems at home, the environment around them makes them want to give up studying or their dreams. Being there, I can help to remind them that they are going to be fine and they are going to achieve their dream.”
Udom, 20, is passionate about giving back to CCF and using his own experience to inspire the next generation of CCF students to reach for their own dreams.
Sometimes, we didn't have much to eat. One meal had to be shared three ways.
In the meantime, he's working hard to realize his own ambitions, combining a full-top job at CCF with studying for a degree in Tourism and Hospitality Management at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, taking classes in the evening.
He was the first in his family to attend university and is on course to graduate in June.
It will be a remarkable achievement, one that once seemed impossible.
Udom grew up in an area of Steung Meanchey, the impoverished part of Phnom Penh around the former landfill site, where families survive day-by-day.
“Sometimes, we didn't have much to eat. One meal had to be shared three ways with me and my parents, and last for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Udom.
“My mum and dad worked very hard to afford to send me to school but it was a struggle.”
After I joined CCF, life got a lot better for us
When Udom was aged around 10, CCF opened up its first school in the community close to where he lived and his parents asked if he could study there.
“After I joined CCF, life got a lot better for us,” says Udom.
“My parents didn’t have to worry so much because CCF provided me with everything from clothes to study materials. I also got some rice for the family if I attended school regularly.
“Now I am in university and CCF still supports me.”
Udom also supports his parents now that he is earning. His sister, 12, attends school and the youngest, a three year old boy, will also have an education.
Udom is a confident, thoughtful and articulate young man.
But he didn’t alway have such self-belief.
While he flourished academically at CCF, he was a shy and quiet child.
The pivotal moment came when he applied to be a participant at the Tony Robbins Global Youth Leadership Summit (GYLS) in the U.S., which offers 10 funded places to CCF students each year.
“That event changed my life,” says Udom.
“I was an introvert and didn’t talk very much. After just five days there, I was a changed student. It helped me to discover a lot about life and other people, and how to communicate.
“I had to give a presentation and overcame my biggest challenge, public speaking, which I never thought I would do.
“When I came back [to Cambodia], I was more confident, outgoing and brave. I felt inspired to do more.”
Udom became active in CCF’s Leadership Program, volunteering in the community at the Food Program and teaching local children.
Now, he’s giving back again in his role as a Sponsor Relations Officer, acting as the bridge between CCF sponsors and kids, at primary and high school. He also enjoys giving guidance to the youngsters about reaching their potential.
“I enjoy my job, I feel like I go back to when I was young,” says Udom.
“When I ask the kids about their lives, it’s very nostalgic for me. I was like them once. So, I encourage them to study hard, and think about their future and goals.”
Udom still lives with his parents in childhood home.
He’s constantly trying to improve and reads self-help and motivational books to push himself forward.
His sights are set on an overseas scholarship for a Master’s and he’s aiming high - he intends to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, the prestigious program which funds graduate education for international students wanting to study in the United States.
“This is my dream. And to travel the world and to work for an international organization like Unicef in a place like Africa, where I can help other people” says Udom.
“I want to achieve so much, so I have to work hard.”
With the determination to succeed he has shown in his young life already, Udom has every chance of making those dreams come true.