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Posted by on Apr 30, 2013

Higher Education in Cambodia and Some Advice for Cambodian Students


Cambodia’s Higher Education Situation

In the past three months I have learned a lot about the state of Cambodian education. The non-existent education system during the late 70s has put the country at an incredible disadvantage compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors and the rest of the world. According to the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s history, “between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime forced the cessation of formal education. Schools and universities were closed and destroyed, and teaching services decimated. The Khmer Rouge targeted the educated, and many of the University’s faculty members were killed.” It’s only been in the past decade that the university and other institutions have been able to grow and regain an educational footing in the country.

The entire educational situation here is grim. Young people in rural provinces aren’t completing primary school, young girls are far behind their brothers in terms of access to education and the universities in the country are lagging in terms of the quality of education students receive compared with the developed world. Even in the schools the situation is somewhat dire. Teachers are very poorly paid, giving them little incentive to put forth their best effort, and the learning system is based more around memorization than any type of critical thinking and practical experience.

The hot topic for many Cambodian youth is how to get a scholarship to study abroad. Most Cambodians pay a few hundred dollars a semester for university, which is not cheap given their income levels. They have absolutely no way to afford the average U.S. tuition (and room and board) costs of more than $20,000 a year (and that’s a very modest number). Their only hope for a higher quality of education is to work hard, learn English and find a scholarship.

According to the Open Doors 2012 data from the Institute of International Education, there are just over 300 Cambodian students studying in the U.S., compared to more than 15,000 Vietnamese and 7,000 Thai students.  Most of this is driven by the cost of tuition, which is not subsidized by the Cambodian government or other groups as it is in some other Southeast Asian countries.

Dave and I were asked by many students about studying abroad and about scholarships while we were here. Dave always directed them my way given my experience in higher education. I was only able to speak to a few of them directly and I know there are so many more who have questions or don’t know where to start if they want to study abroad.

The following words of advice should apply to most educational opportunities abroad, regardless of the country.  The resources listed, however, are focused on the U.S. since that is my sphere of reference.  This is in no means an exhaustive list, nor am I the end-all expert, but I hope it helps as a starting point for Cambodians looking to study abroad.

Advice for Cambodian Students Who Want to Study in the U.S.

1) Work on your marketable skills
Higher education in the U.S. will be different from Cambodia. Your English writing, reading and speaking skills will need to be relatively strong before you attend a U.S. university in order to keep up with the fast-paced nature of the courses. Seek out both English courses, but also opportunities to speak with native English speakers.

Many courses require you to work in groups on projects and papers so working in teams while you’re in Cambodia will help prepare you well. U.S. courses also highly value critical thinking skills and will ask that students analyze and evaluate problems, along with providing solutions. You will be asked to conduct thorough research and to critically think about issues. Find ways to practice this type of work in Cambodia through NGOs, volunteering or other classroom experiences.

2) Think about your major and when you would study abroad
There are hundreds of different types of majors and programs at universities abroad. Before you begin researching schools and scholarship opportunities, take time to think about what you really want to study and how that major or program will prepare you for your future career options. You often don’t need to choose an official major until a year or two into an undergraduate degree in the U.S., but knowing what you’re most interested in will help you focus your research.  Also, consider when you would study abroad – after high school to receive an undergraduate degree or for a masters or Ph.D. degree.

3) Research
It is easy to say you want to get a scholarship, but so does almost every other student. Actually obtaining a scholarship or being admitted to a university takes time and dedication in researching your opportunities and understanding their requirements. The resources at the end of this post are a starting point. As you find different opportunities, keep track of them either on your computer or in a notebook so you can refer back to them. At minimum, you’ll want to keep track of the opportunity, the website, the deadline for application and any the steps you need to take.

Scholarships can come in many forms. Some are sponsored by individuals, governments or the private sector while many are given through a university directly. Undergraduate university scholarships are often awarded during the application and admission process. Master’s Degree university scholarships can be awarded as fellowships or research assistant positions. Knowing about these opportunities requires you to research the actual websites of particular universities and can take a lot of time and effort, but may pay off in the long run.


Opportunity Website Application Deadline Steps I need to Take
ABC Scholarship
1 December 2013 Review all requirements in detail, Write essay, get 1 letter of recommendation, complete application

4) Talk to others

Do you know anyone who has studied abroad or is studying abroad? If so, connect with them and ask them questions about how they navigated the application process and what advice they can provide. Ask them about their transition to a new country and what it is like studying outside of Cambodia.

5) Use available resources
While academic advisors are not common in Cambodia, there are a variety of centers, particularly in Phnom Penh that can help you in your search. The EducationUSA Center in Phnom Penh has resources, test preparation books, computers and an advisor who can help discuss opportunities in the U.S. The IDP Center has study abroad consultants and information.  Some of these services are free, others may require payments so double check the requirements. Also, find someone who can help review your applications and essays before you submit them.

6) Have a plan and know what you need to do
Once you have identified scholarships, universities or programs you want to apply for, make sure you know the proper requirements and create an action plan on what you will need to complete when.


University University website Application Deadline   Action Steps
ABC University
  1 March 2014 Study for TOEFL exam, Register for TOEFL exam, Complete application and essays, Ask advisor to review application and essay, Submit all application materials

7) Plan ahead

A big barrier for Cambodian students in studying abroad can be the required entrance exams. As you conduct your research, note what programs require exams. Many U.S. institutions will require TOEFL scores. Undergraduate programs may require an SAT score and Master’s Degree programs may require a GRE score. These tests require preparation and doing well on them can be vital to being admitted to certain programs. Make sure you know where and when you can take these exams in Cambodia and when you would need to take them in order to apply in time to the scholarships or programs you are considering. If a university does not require an exam, I’d dig deeper to make sure it’s an accredited institution.

Common exams for U.S. programs:
Undergraduate degrees – SAT or ACT
Master’s Degrees – GRE (for most Master’s programs) & GMAT (for Master’s of Business Administration programs)
Law Degree – LSAT

A local prep course.

A local prep course.

8) Be patient, but dedicated
This process is not easy and will be time consuming and challenging. While it may seem very hard and not worth the struggle, receiving a scholarship or an opportunity to study abroad could ultimately change your life. Have patience in finding opportunities, but be dedicated to following through on those that are a good fit for your interests.

9) Use your education for good
If you do have the good fortune of studying abroad, think about how you can help others who have been in your situation. When you’re abroad, give back to other students with advice and inspiration.  When you return to Cambodia, find ways to help the country progress given your new knowledge and experience.

Resources for Studying in the U.S.

U.S. Embassy – Studying in the U.S.
EducationUSA Study Abroad Resource Site
EducationUSA Advising Center in Phnom Penh
EducationUSA Center in Phnom Penh Facebook Page – posts a range of scholarship opportunities and other helpful information
Scholarships in the U.S. for International Students

To find other scholarship and financial aid resources, I’d recommend doing Internet searches for your particular areas of study. For example, if you want to study journalism, you could search for “journalism scholarships at U.S. universities.”

I’ve seen what a catalyst for change the youth in Cambodia can be for this country. I’d be happy to be a resource for young Cambodian’s looking to study abroad. I can’t promise any magic answers or quick-fixes, but I can provide guidance on where to look for answers or how to approach your search. You can reach me by clicking on the “Contact” section at the top of the page.