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Giving back and growing through a Gap Year


Kimheang Chham ’16 recently completed a gap year before she begins her university career as a UWC-Davis Scholar at Luther College in Iowa, USA. A five-year UWCSEA scholar from Cambodia, Kim joined UWCSEA East as a Grade 8 student when the campus opened in 2011.

Just one year following graduation, she was invited back as the Young Alumni speaker at the East Graduation ceremony in May. In her introduction of Kim at Graduation, High School Vice Principal, Cathy Jones, had this to say: “Her story before coming to UWC is one of determination. When some tried to sow seeds of doubt in her future, she did not give up hope. Once at school, she always made opportunities where others might have seen obstacles, persevering in a new and unfamiliar environment … In her year since school, she has continued to demonstrate her resilience, her values, and shown how you can make a vision real.”

Here Kim shares some of the experiences and personal growth that have taken place during her multi-faceted gap year.

I was lucky to do many different things during my gap year. I helped with UWCSEA’s Outdoor Education trips to Malaysia and Thailand as an assistant instructor. I volunteered with Green Umbrella NGO in Cambodia, teaching English to their staff, assisting teachers with reading times in classrooms and library, running a weekend workshop about environmental awareness, and a few other things relating to English translation. I also got to spend some time at home with my family, which gave me the opportunity to integrate back to Cambodia, and I started up and organised an Initiative for Peace programme in Cambodia (IfP Cambodia) with the help of a team of Grade 11 and 12 students from UWCSEA East.

IfP Cambodia

IfP Cambodia was definitely the biggest part of my gap year. It required lots of preparation, funds, and resilience to make it happen. It was also the highlight of my gap year because the impacts (I can see) will last even when I leave Cambodia for college.

Our first IfP Cambodia conference focused on Youth Empowerment and an Introduction to Service. I had many hats to wear: I had to get the message out about the purpose of conference and recruit a group of potential helpers. Then I had to form a group of volunteer facilitators from UWCSEA East, and work with them online over three months to prepare for the conference in April 2017. I was also in Cambodia reaching out to different NGOs who might be interested in helping, meeting with them and communicating with them. I had to find our venue, accommodation and manage other logistics. I also had to work out all the costs and see what we had and what we needed to raise to meet our needs. The team helped to launch a fundraising campaign, which was very successful, thanks to the generosity of the UWCSEA community. I also had to reach and recruit potential delegates. Overall, I played the roles of project leader, logistics person, conference facilitator, and the supervisor during the conference whom everyone could go to for help.

We had 27 youth participants (one Vietnamese, one Thai and 25 Cambodians) and 10 facilitators from UWCSEA East, including myself. The conference focused on identity, empowerment and service. We had a service day where the delegates and facilitators went to Tiny Toones NGO to run workshops there about what we’ve learned from the first few days of the conference. On that day, we got to see what our delegates understood from the topics, the confidence they’d gained and how empowered they had become. Some of them even learned that they love service from the experience. That was when we knew that the conference had been a success. It was so hard and sad for everyone to leave the conference as we all bonded very closely through the five days together.

The conference was very successful and through feedback we can see that many of our delegates want to go on and run another similar conference for other Cambodians. That was one of our biggest dreams, to see that it doesn’t stop when we leave and to see Cambodian youth become leaders and initiators tackling issues they are concerned about and working together to help their communities. That is the impact we had on the delegates.

Personal growth

Through my gap year, I learned and gained skills in commitment, patience and also pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I got to experience work life. I also got to experience working as a team to take care of students and many new lessons about the outdoors.

Through IfP Cambodia, I learned to be a leader. I must say I got to live my dream through this gap year project. I got to share back to Cambodia what I had learned from UWC over the previous five years about identity, service, leadership and more. I learned that at some point along your journey, to create something new or big you will have a time that things don’t work out and you feel like giving up and that it is impossible. There were times that I doubted myself. I didn’t know how I was doing, didn’t know who I could turn to for help or if any of my plans were going to work.

Now, I am glad that I got to feel that way because through that, I had to do something about it. I learned to pick myself back up, find people who give me courage, and try again. Those lessons will stick with me for the rest of my life. I’ve learned to be okay with self-doubt sometimes, because that means I will find a way to deal with it and it will make me stronger. All the stress, hard work and hard times I’ve had have been very worth it. My gap year didn’t only give me new experiences and mature me as a person, but it is helping to spread the UWC values.

Kimheang’s Gap Year experience was made possible by the Kirpalani Family. Since 2012, they have funded 21 scholar gap year experiences. Gifts to the College, through the UWCSEA Foundation, enrich the unique UWC learning experience and bring the College closer to achieving its mission.