US Youth Exchanges a Good Chance for Asean Engagement

Posted July 6th, 2011 at 5:44 am (UTC+7)

Nearly 1,000 people, mostly students, attended a meeting in Phnom Penh, organized by the Youth Resources Development Program on June 19, 2011. The event, ‘Cambodian Youth Step to Asean’, aimed at helping prepare the country to host next year’s Asean youth summit as well as to better prepare its youth for the region’s integration. (Photo: Video/VOA Khmer)

For US policymakers looking to engage more with Asean youth, facilitating educational exchanges seems to be one answer. Cambodia is a case in point.

With the 2015 deadline looming for Asean integration, Cambodian youth say they don’t understand the benefits of an Asean community and are currently incapable of taking advantage of them. This will potentially disadvantage them against neighboring youth. Some groups here in Washington suggested last month that helping close the socio-economic gap between Asean countries would be in the US interest. US-sponsored education and capacity-building programs in Cambodia such as Peace Corps and Fulbright, which is for US citizens, or USAID, a government development agency, provide opportunities for people-to-people interaction, as well as the transfer of skills and knowledge.

However, given the US economic climate, how can those programs be expanded? Potential new groups include American retirees and, particularly, an increasing number of Americans with personal ties to Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Cambodian-Americans who have interests in Cambodian issues say they often have financial constraints and for different reasons cannot go to Cambodia on available programs. Former Fulbright grantee Phally Chroy says the program is highly competitive and difficult for Cambodian-Americans who may not have received a strong education. In addition, Peace Corps volunteers are more likely to be sent to countries with a different culture than to those they have family in.

The exchange increase should also go the other way—that is, training for Cambodians in the US. Existing US exchange programs such as the Fulbright are hugely popular and competitive among Cambodian students, and the activities of the program’s Cambodian alumni are good examples of the social impacts such overseas programs can have. However, besides these US government-sponsored programs for higher education in the US, it is unclear what other opportunities there are for Cambodians through private or other support means. It has also been suggested that such educational exchanges be open for Cambodian high school students. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh already seems to be stepping up its outreach in this area, including the introduction of J visas. But there is still a long way to go before Cambodian students might enjoy the exchange opportunities offered in other Asean countries.

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Today’s Cambodia is at a crossroads of rapid social, economic, and political changes in an equally fast-changing region.

VOA Khmer‘s Crossroads Cambodia looks at major regional and international issues affecting the country and its people — and vice-versa.

Sophat Soeung reports and researches about Cambodia’s regional and international affairs. A native of Phnom Penh, he has also lived and traveled in Europe and the United States. He joined VOA Khmer in 2010.


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