A classroom full of young men and women sit concentrating on their laptop screens, sitting in a U-shape configuration facing the wall, occasionally turning their heads to look at the white board explaining basic instructions and IT terms.

Among the students is Sar Srey Em from Ratanakiri province. She went through a strict selection process with French non-profit Passerelles Numeriques Cambodia (PNC), which provides a free post-high school education in IT for people from poor and rural backgrounds.

Coming from a remote town 10-hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, Sey Em has regularly encountered the stereotype that women like her are not capable of working in the IT sector.

“I’m strong minded and I firmly decided I will conquer this bias. I want to show people that women can also study IT like men and that success is determined by how hard you try,” she says.

Srey Em’s sentiment is echoed by Chorch Savoeun, who teaches System and Network Administration with PNC.

“Girls who love IT must learn it. Don’t be afraid to go for your dream. IT is not only for men, women can be good at it too,” she says.

Savoeun says IT remains a relatively new subject in Cambodia, meaning she still has to spend a long time introducing the concept to her students before they are even familiar with it.

“First, we explain what IT is to the students. After we explain keywords, we let them practice many times, put them into groups for assignments, and then give them the final projects at the end of the term,” she says.

Part of PNC’s policy is that at least 50 per cent of their enrolled students are women, in addition to priority being given to the poorest students.

Run Saroem, PNC’s external relations manager and fundraiser, says the organisation has “trained 1,437 students from 1,437 families, with 50 per cent of our students women.”

Coming from an underprivileged background himself, Saroem says he moved to PNC in 2014 as he was inspired by his mother’s life and experiences.

‘’My mother didn’t have an opportunity to study, because her childhood was in the Khmer Rouge era. But my mother created this opportunity for us to study. She didn’t allow her children to drop out, this is what motivated me to study hard,” he says.

Run Saroem, PNC’s external relations manager and fundraiser, says the organisation has trained 1,437 students from 1,437 families, with 50 per cent of the students women. Yousos Apdoulrashim

PNC’s students are selected to undertake professional training in the digital sector so that they are able to help their families escape poverty in a sustainable way and contribute to the social and economic development of Cambodia.

The organisation operates in Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Their Cambodian office has six computer labs and seven classrooms in which to provide theory and language education. Students have two options for study – system network administration and web programming. They study eight hours per day from Monday to Friday, as well as studying English and soft skills on Saturday and Sunday.

The students education, food and accommodation are all covered by PNC.

In order to qualify for the scheme, the potential students must undergo four selection steps.

First, from February to September, PNC staff visit schools and communities to introduce the scholarship, with students who are interested in applying encouraged to submit their curriculum vitae. Applicants can be either high school graduates or those who have failed their high school exams, as long as they are currently under 24-years-old.

Second, applicants sit exams to test their logic, mathematics and English for PNC to assess whether they have the potential to study IT.

Students are then interviewed, with PNC emphasising that they will live and learn under strict rules and regulations as part of the programme. One of PNC’s stricter rules is timing, to ensure students will stay focused on their studies and not spend time outside their dormitory late at night.

And finally, before any decision is made, PNC staff visit the student’s home to learn more about their living situation.

Dara Doung, a PNC scholar from Siem Reap, enjoys her life at the organisation and feels like it is her second home.

“I feel happy and warm because PNC supports me with my home, food and money,” the Web Programming student says. “Teachers take care of us, this makes me feel like I’m with my family.”

Nearly all PNC scholars find employment soon after graduating, with the organisation tapping into its more than 250 partners who welcome ex-students for internships and jobs.

But with success comes challenges, with funding a perennial issue to keep the programme going.

“We’ve had problems with finances. In 2016 we had to reduce our training and supporting capacity from 100 to 50 students. This is only made harder by the constant need to update our teaching programme curriculum as the world of IT is always updating,” Saroem says.

PNC is located on Street 371 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. They can be contacted by telephone (855 239 955 00) or email ([email protected]).