Successful scholarship applicants (L to R): Sovichea Kon, 14; Kong Sovan Sakana, 14; Touch Sreylin, 14; and Sochan Reaksmey, 15. Photograph: Kevin Ponniah/Phnom Penh Post
Orphaned and homeless at the age of seven, Sayorn Chin and his younger brother hopped on the back of a truck in Sihanoukville and made their way to Phnom Penh. With no family to care for them, the pair picked and sold rubbish at the Stung Meanchey dumpsite, a mountainous, seething mass of the capital’s detritus.
“Somehow we managed to buy food,” Chin, now 18, said. “Perhaps something in my mind pushed me to survive in those circumstances.”
Looking back now, Chin said that the time he spent homeless feels like “a different world”. He is back in Phnom Penh to assist with the scholarship program that changed his life five years ago.
At eight, he was taken in by the Centre for Children’s Happiness (CCH), an orphanage that gives children from the dumpsite a clean place to live, three meals a day and a chance to receive an education.
Topping the class from the get-go, he skipped ahead and found himself in Grade 9 at the age of 13.
In 2008, he won a five-year scholarship to United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) − a progressive international school in Singapore frequently recognised as one of the top high schools in the world.
This past weekend, four more five-year scholarships to UWCSEA were awarded to Cambodian nationals in a small ceremony at the offices of NGO Equitable Cambodia, attended by teachers from the college, proud relatives and friends, and former recipients like Chin.
The scholarships were handed out after a rigorous vetting process that included provincial examinations in mathematics, English and Khmer, selection days and rounds of interviews.
The scholarships – now given annually to Cambodian students – cover boarding expenses, school fees, flights and provide a living allowance. The students will eventually graduate with an International Baccalaureate diploma, an internationally recognised high school qualification.
“The scholarship is a life-changing opportunity. I would not be the person I am today without the scholarship,” Chin told the Post.
“When I see kids on the street, I feel like I was them before. They don’t know what their life could be like. All they think about is how to survive on a daily basis. I want them to think they have a future.”
Sinath Keo, 18, was also present over the weekend to mentor prospective scholars, having received a scholarship in the same year as Chin.
Her parents died from HIV when she was a child, leading her and her four siblings to work on the dumpsite until they were also taken in by CCH.
“We didn’t have money to pay for school,” she said.
“Anything that could be recycled we would collect and sell. Between us, we made maybe $2.50 a day.”
UWCSEA is one of a number of United World Colleges around the world that provide merit-based scholarships and deliver a “challenging and transformative educational experience,” according to their website.
“We are very, very pleased with the way scholarships have gone in its fifth year,” said Kevin Morley, a UWCSEA teacher and head of the scholarships committee.
“The kids we have chosen are exceptional in terms of academic and personal achievements and have all displayed the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed at a United World College.”
Adapting to a large and academically intense international school in a metropolis like Singapore is not easy, something that Keo knows well.
“Honestly, it was a huge culture shock and it took a year to adapt,” she said, adding that simple things such as chatting during mealtimes and hugging the opposite sex were initially confounding for someone who had grown up in Khmer culture.
Despite having won scholarships for further study in the US, both Keo and Chin intend to return to Cambodia to assist with the country’s development after university.
“I really want to help kids who have a dream, just like me. Education is a source of success to me,” Keo said.
The scholarship recipients this year are Sochan Reaksmey, 15, of Banteay Meanchey; Sovichea Kon, 14, of Phnom Penh; Touch Sreylin, 14, of Phnom Penh; and Kong Sovan Sakana, 14, of Pursat.
For Sreylin, who once worked at Stung Meanchey and only started formal schooling in 2008, the reality is yet to set in.
“I feel so happy, so excited. I can’t believe it.
“When I applied there were hundreds of candidates. I never thought I would get it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin Ponniah at [email protected]