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Se Chhin an Unsung Hero of This Life!

by Surya Narayan
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In Cambodia, there are a great number of unsung heroes. A lot of these unsung heroes are making real contributions to the country’s social and economic growth. It is our job to tell the stories of these unsung heroes in order to get more people involved in the development of the country.

Se Chhin is one of those unsung heroes who shared his thoughts with The Better Cambodia. He had the opportunity to meet President Obama at the White House in 2015, and recently, he met President Biden when he was in Cambodia to attend the ASEAN summit.

Se Chhin is working as the Deputy Director at This Life Cambodia. He has been with This Life Cambodia from its inception. This Life Cambodia is a not-for-profit, non-government community development organisation based in Siem Reap that was established in 2007. Its work is focused on providing opportunities for communities to develop the essential infrastructure, skills, and knowledge they need to make positive changes in their lives and break free from poverty.

About childhood..

Well, I was born into a fishing and farming family in Kampong Cham province in the 1980s, but they pushed their kids through to get an education. While other families in the village sent their kids to fish and farm, they sent us to school. While my friends’ fathers were complaining that they had to work hard alone to provide for the whole family, my father just kept going to farm and fish day in and day out. 

I had to walk a few kilometers to primary school through mud and water, sometimes taking a boat during the rainy season, and dust and hot weather during the dry season. I was among 30+ other kids from our village. Each year I saw several friends of mine drop out of school, and more dropped out as they were mature enough to work on the farm and fish. 

After primary school, I had to travel to school for around 15 kilometers of a return trip each day. My father bought me a bike, an adult one, which I found myself hardly cycling because my legs were merely reaching the paddles. That was the very first bicycle our family owned. That bike was probably one of the biggest investments our family had in my education. 

You were one of a handful of children from the village who got through secondary education at that time. What was it in you that made you different from other children at your age?

I believe it was because of the opportunity provided by my parents. It was about their investment in my education. The education they believe will change my life. Of course, if I had sent myself to school, I would not be who I am today. Our family at that time was poor, but almost every single family in our village and even across the country was poor. However, their determination, dedication, and sacrifice have made my life different. 

What was it in me? I think I could only do my best. Knowing that my parents worked very hard to provide for our family of six from a young age, I just happened to be careful about any decisions I made and any actions I took to ensure that I would not cause any trouble for them. I just happened to know that if I could do one thing to make my parents, grandparents, and siblings proud of me, it would be to do well in school, which I did.  

Last month you met the president of the United States, Joe Biden, and several years ago you met Barack Obama. Tell us more about this one-of-a-lifetime and exclusive experience. 

Well, in 2014, I was introduced to the YSEALI Fellowships program by a lovely American lady, by the name of Susan, who has become one of my close friends. Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, or YSEALI, was started by President Obama in 2013. The program aims to build the leadership capabilities of youth in the region and promote cross-border cooperation to solve regional and global challenges. It is a highly competitive cultural exchange program for Southeast Asian emerging leaders sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. So, I applied and got selected. It’s a six-week exchange program based in the US where all the leaders from the ASEAN countries were brought together to learn from each other and how organizations in the US operate. There were a lot of events, leadership training/workshops, field visits, and placements in organizations there. All in all, this program has positively contributed to my personal and professional development, and the long-lasting connections I built during the program continue to this day. Yes, I met President Obama in 2015 in the White House and last month with President Biden. Being a YSEALI alumnus, I have had opportunities to participate in many other events organized by the Embassy and other alumni community activities. 

Last word for everyone who wishes to be like you … 

Wish to be like me…hahaha. First of all, everyone needs to be the best version of themselves. And yes, you have somebody to look up to. 

Second, once again, I am who I am today because of opportunities. The most valuable opportunity I have ever had in my life, as mentioned above, was to access education, and that was because of the belief and sacrifice of my parents. I can’t thank them enough. So, for young Cambodians who are reading our interview here, you have already finished a much better basic-education system that the country had or has to offer compared to what it was in my generation. I am not comparing educational quality in other countries; rather, I am comparing our country—10, 15, and 20 years ago. As a result, you were and are in a much better position now. Without jeopardizing others’ interests or causing harm to others, seize any opportunities that you have and seek more opportunities.  

Third, keep working hard and loving what you are doing. At the end of the day, most of our lifetime is spent working. So why should we do what we don’t like? Keep exploring yourself and finding what you really love to do. 

Lastly, keep developing yourself– attending training, workshops, and seminars, reading books about your interests and the most important thing is to surround yourself with those whom you respect and who are better than you, and support those who need your help. 

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