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‘Your Dreams Are Possible if You Work Hard’: From Rural Cambodia to New York Ph.D


Vylyny Chat (right) is a Ph.D. student in epidemiology at New York University. (Facebook)

[Editor’s Note: Chat Vylyny is a Ph.D. student in epidemiology at New York University. Few Khmer students pursue further studies related to the dynamics of disease, its control and spread, yet fewer still have gained such rich cross-cultural experience working and studying in the United States, China and Bangladesh, where she studied at the Asian University for Women. VOA’s Sotheary You caught up with Vylyny to discuss her research and what motivated her to pursue an academic career overseas.]

How did you get a chance to work at NYU in Shanghai?

I worked at NYU Shanghai as a teaching assistant. They needed people who had teaching experience. I taught biology there. I did an undergraduate degree in Bangladesh. There, I was a teaching assistant in a biology class and helped students in science class. I think it helped me to get a job at NYU Shanghai. I also have good recommendations from a professor in Bangladesh.

How did you get the chance to study in Bangladesh?

I studied public health and did a minor in Chinese there. The Asian University for Women held a study workshop in my high school, Pouk High School in Siem Reap province. I applied for the scholarship when I was in grade 12. I took the exams, English and Math exams, in Phnom Penh. Then they interviewed me. Then, I was awarded the scholarship to study in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, it is a university for women only, so I studied with women from the developing countries.

Do you think studying in Bangladesh changed your ideas?

I studied in English in all classes in Bangladesh. I studied English in my first year, so I am able to meet their English standard. I learned about the diversity of culture and traditions that differed from Cambodia. I studied with professors from many places around the world. I was able to understand cultural sensitivity and respect for people regardless of their cultures. My school is a liberal arts school, so I didn’t only study the specific subjects that were required. I also studied other subjects, as such global justice, social science, and ethics and so on. Thus, it helped me to think broadly beyond my subject area. It helped me to get along well with others when I worked.

What are the essential qualifications to obtain a scholarship to study in Bangladesh?

I don’t think my scholarship program selected the very best students. They looked at your potential leadership [ability]. They wanted to know your dreams and your potential in their interview. In my case, my English was limited. I spoke unclearly. When I first got there, I had limited English to communicate. Some people there could barely speak English, yet they showed their courage. I dared to speak my imperfect English. I dared to show them my dream. I wanted to change my society. They wanted to give a chance to girls, who have high potential but limited resources, through the scholarship.

How did you show your leadership?

I think I am courageous. I dared to speak out even though I had limited English. I told them about my dream for the future.

What did you learn from the school?

I learned issues faced by women and girls in developing countries. When I was in Cambodia, I could not travel freely. As a Cambodian women, we have limitations. For example, in my case, my family told me that I should study pharmacy, so I could run a nearby pharmacy. They don’t want us [Cambodian women] to study any subjects that required us to travel away from home. They don’t want girls to study far away from home because it is unsafe, they think. However, when I studied with all women, they encouraged women to pursue their dreams. They motivated us to approach what we wanted to do. There were no such jobs based on gender norms which were reinforced in the school. It relates to my family too. I am from a family that gives priority to sons. Sons are always right. Thus, studying in this school opened my eyes to equality. Even though I am a girl, they treated me equally.

What qualifications did you need to get a job in Shanghai?

I had experience in teaching. They asked me to demonstrate my teaching skills in the interview. As a lecturer, I needed to show compassion and show that we care about the students. The NYU in Shanghai has students from around the world. They needed people who have experience in teaching international students who have diverse cultures. I taught students from different cultures in Bangladesh, so I understand that students, from different cultures, need different teaching methods to approach them. There is no one size fits all.

What challenges did you experience when you worked in Shanghai?

That was challenging as I moved to a new place that had a different culture. It was not easy to integrate yourself into the new working community. When I was in Bangladesh, there was diverse cultures but was within Asian culture. However, there was mostly westerners at NYU Shanghai. When my colleagues got together, I found it challenging to engage with them. Moreover, my students came from all around the world. I taught students who have different cultures from mine. In Asian culture, students respected the lecturer, yet westerners treated us as their friends. First, it felt difficult. Later on, I got used to it.

How did you overcome that?

I experienced culture shock in Bangladesh. I told myself that this is normal when you settle in a new place. I was patient and humble. I didn’t take things personally when others were culturally insensitive. We have to be open-minded to accept that. They didn’t mean to criticize us; they were just insensitive to our culture.

How did you stand out among your peers to get the scholarship?

I experienced some issues during the interview process that I didn't expect. However, I think I was selected because of that. On the day that they interviewed me. The professor who was supposed to interview me was absent. Other professors interviewed me. I was disappointed. I emailed that professor to talk to him. He forwarded that email to the committee. Then, I had a chance to speak to him for about an hour. What I learned from my experience is that we have to be courageous. If we think that we don't have good enough chance to show our ability and capacity, we have to seek a new opportunity. In my case, I emailed the professor, and eventually, I had a chance to talk with him. I told him that I wanted to talk to him because I am interested in his research. Bravery is important. Do not accept things that you think are unfair. We have to fight for what can help us.

How did you feel before and after coming to the US to study?

I was delighted to get this opportunity, yet there are many challenges for me. I have to be patient. I settled down in a new place. It takes time to get used to the area. The education system is different. Here it is more competitive. I need to work even harder. Keep trying and don’t give up. In my school, students have a good background—graduating from the good schools and having years of experience. We have to learn how to stay calm and humble. Don’t give up. We need to learn to create a conducive environment to exchange experiences among our peers.

Do you have any messages for young girls in Cambodia?

I was born and raised in a rural area. I am not a Phnom Penh or urban native. When I was young, I never dreamed about studying in New York. I thought it was impossible for me. We have to have hope. We have to work hard. I had never dreamed about studying in New York when I was in high school. However, it happened to me. I think it is possible for all people who have a dream if they work hard.

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