This time last year seems just like yesterday. In September this year, I returned to Cambodia with my Masters Degree in International Development, Environment and Conflict (MDEC) from Dublin City University (DCU). I got my results a few days ago and I am very happy with my grades. MDEC is a very interesting course and I made great friends with like-minded friends when I participated on this course. My Masters presented me with a wide spectrum of world issues and ideas to reflect upon and think about. No words can describe the knowledge and experience that I gained. I am still learning, relearning and unlearning. It was a very rich experience to learn from great professors and friends who helped me to successfully complete my course.
I am indeed very fortunate to have met great professors who taught us with passion and did their very best to connect us to various learning opportunities outside of the classroom. I think DCU is a great place to study and it suited me to spend time there studying a subject that I am passionate about. MDEC course has had a huge impact on my thinking and how I now see the world. It helps me to understand better the work that I am doing at PEPY and it emphasizes that decision making is better when it’s in collaboration with the people with whom we work. I remember one particular class discussions on project planning and implementing. I learned that we should never assume that what we think is the only right way to look about things. We should be open to listening to people and enabling people to arrive at their own decisions. I truly believe that this it is a very important matter for those who work in the ‘Development’ world. People need a skill set to work with and understand how to approach people and to empower them, based on their unique social and cultural context. Even though I am Cambodian myself, I need to always consider that PEPY students have their own unique life experiences and perspectives on issues and events. Their view of things may or may not be similar to mine. Regardless, I need to constantly connect with their world and lives to best support and move forward together.
One year in Ireland has enabled me to be a better listener. There were plenty of things that I had to learn about and adjust to culturally. I also learned some English phrases that only Irish people use. For example, what’s the story? I still have to pause and think about this when I hear it. No one is asking what the story is. Rather, I am being asked, what has happened since I saw you last. I have learned that I do not expect an Irish person to wait to hear my reply after they ask, ‘hello and how are you?’ It’s just their way of greeting people. I found this very welcoming and friendly. At first, I kept replying to this question but they never waited to hear what I said. I quickly stopped. At first, I thought it was mean to do this in a Cambodian context but my Masters experience broadened my understanding of cultural diversity. Finally, I have fun with the language and I go with the flow. I say, ‘Hello, how are you?’, and I just keep going.
That was outside of classroom. What about inside the classroom? The first semester seemed easy – classes were relaxing and interactive. I found that I learned a lot. When it came to assignment I felt like I had not learned anything in class! The assignments were heavy and I needed to learn a lot of big words, academic words. I often thought that if simple words can be understood by everyone, why do writers like to use a lot of academic words that make things complicated. It took many hours to understand the articles we had to read. I love simple language. While I think it is not necessary to use complicated words to communicate effectively, I am thankful too that I learned a richer vocabulary. This new vocabulary has helped me improve my reading skills.
The work load doubled during the second semester. There were many more readings and writing. Yet, I always managed to manage my time well and to complete the necessary assignments. Sometimes this was stressful but I got there.
Ireland is beautiful all year round, except in December and January. I was not familiar with winter, when nature goes into hibernation and sleeps silently. I loved to walk, to ride my bicycle and to take buses and trains. I was very grateful for public transportation and public spaces in Ireland. Dublin has so many beautiful parks. I spent most of my weekend in the Botanical Gardens. It is beautiful there and it is close to DCU. Spring is my favorite season in Ireland because it is full of color and everything comes back to life after winter. I too am like that in Spring, coming back to life as this colorful season makes me happy. I took many pictures of flowers and of the natural landscape. While I was in Ireland I also had a chance to visit the Netherland and Belgium. I was amazed by the hectors of Tulips that I had not seen previously. I was very grateful that I was able to witness such beauty.
As I write, I’m reminded about the cost of living in Ireland and Europe. Most things are very expensive compared to prices in Cambodia. I was often shocked by the prices of food items in the supermarket compared to prices in Cambodia. I had to tell myself to stop comparing prices as the scholarship was enough for me to live on in Ireland. At the same time, I also discovered cheaper places to shop, like Deal and LiDL. However, at times when I really missed Cambodian food, I shopped at Dublin’s Asian market. They had many things that made me feel less homesick, even though the Asian vegetables were not so fresh as they had travelled a long way.
Sometimes, I did not miss home because I had such good company. My class was small. There were only nine of us. We were so close and we shared so much in common. We spent a lot of time studying and having fun together. Our time spent in the library was very memorable. I loved to observe how other students learned, particularly as exam time approached. Usually, I brought a box of fruits or snacks to share with my friends. I found it so entertaining to eat while at the same time watching how serious an individual student can become when they are under pressure to meet deadlines. We would agree among ourselves that as long as we learned and passed, we would not be driven by grades. I thought I was the only one thinking that. Maybe because of this way of thinking, I had such a great time. Besides working many hours on my assignments, I also felt like I had a mini holiday at times. Our classmates sometimes decided to go places together. On one occasion we picked Bray and Greystones. It was the beginning of Spring and it was a lovely sunny day. As we walked up the hill and we passed by great views and on the way down, we stopped for a picnic as the nearby restaurant was crowded. I truly love all my Masters-degree friends and I miss them a lot now!
Last Christmas was my first time celebrating Christmas in a country where Christmas is a major festival. It was a great experience. I enjoyed spending time with Irish families. I love playing many games and we laughed so much! I remember making a lot of mistakes when playing quiz games that were mainly about Ireland, Irish culture, Irish history and sometimes European history also. I had no idea, but I answered randomly. Most of the time, I said the wrong answers but this did not limit me from having fun. I loved watching different movies, also cartoons as we sat in front of the fire. It was such a great feeling to relax and enjoy watching Santa Claus and eat Turkey. At first, I thought it was big chicken! The same family that I spent my first Christmas with became my host family. I felt welcomed and very comfortable to spend my last seven weeks in Ireland with this wonderful family. They made me feel at home and I did my own cooking………and I cooked rice every day!! Rice makes me happy and without rice I feel like I do not eat anything at all. My host family lives in Portmarnock, a beautiful Dublin suburb by the sea. I enjoyed walking and biking along the beach. It helps me come up with ideas to write about in my thesis. I love the place and I felt great when I saw the ocean as working in Siem Reap, it takes me at least twelve hours by bus to reach the sea in South-East Cambodia. So I took full advantage when I had time and opportunity to spend time by the sea in this beautiful Dublin seaside place.
All these great things would not have happened without the support of Irish Aid, ICOS and PEPY-DPETNS partnership in Donabate. Irish Aid has worked very closely with ICOS to connect all fellow students to meet and exchange experience several times. I learned so much and I was very much inspired by their work and their experience prior to my arrival in Ireland. The program is very highly regarded and I felt that I got wonderful support from them, both academically and culturally. They have such a great support system in place and I got enough information prior to, during and after the program. Without this information and support, I may not have had the same experience that I had last year. I can never express enough thanks for the opportunity and support that Irish Aid and ICOS have given me and other fellowship friends. My experience was very special also because I had great support from friends in Donabates and elsewhere. I remembered how warm it was to see their lovely faces waiting for me at the airport before they took me to my new home. They helped me settle in and I was very grateful for the utensils, rice, fish sauce and the bedding that they brought me on my first day. I saw rice and it made me happy! Rice is deeply rooted in my Cambodian blood. I love rice! Donabate was my most frequently visited place during my entire time in Ireland. You can find it in my leap card information. It is like my second home. I know people from there not just by their names, but by their kindness, friendliness and generosity. My last day at DPETNS was one of the most special days when Maeve brought me to all classes and each class sang their class song and sent messages to their friends at PEPY in Siem Reap. I returned to Cambodia, full of love to share with my family and friends.
Heartfelt thanks to everyone for making my time there most memorable. You are in my heart and I am very lucky to have met you all. I learned so much from your kindness and hope I can do something like this for other people who come into my life in the future. You are awesome……..and you will be….. ALWAYS!