William & Mary Cambodian Outreach Experience Helps Rebuild a Society

Killing fields, land mines, Khmer Rouge - all words people once used to describe Cambodia - are giving way to a new cultural image for the country, more favorable to tourism and trade that now centers on the temples of Angkor Wat. It is estimated that two million tourists will swell that industry this year. They'll bring jobs and commerce to a country that has been recovering from the Communist regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who left power in 1979. William & Mary business students have been participating in the recovery, not as tourists but through helping a tour guide who in her spare time runs several schools. Ponheary Ly, a self-educated Cambodian war survivor, sees that re-creating an educated society is the only way to restore her country. The students are offering their skills to connect her to the resources she needs to do it.

Ponheary Ly is a natural educator and captivates tourists with her historic knowledge about the country and the temples they come to see near the city of Siem Reap. But equally captivating is her story of the many children she is helping in her schools, and over the years tourists have championed her cause. One of them has been Mason School of Business Professor Don Rahtz.

Rahtz met Ponheary Ly three years ago and instantly recognized a unique opportunity for both her cause and his business students. His students could help her program grow, mainly by providing access to technology and the English language, while at the same time they would gain experience in a world setting that would broaden their education beyond the classroom and make them better global citizens, the aim of a Mason School education.

"I can talk in class and lecture and tell students what things are like on the other side of the world," he says. "But if you don't walk down the street - see it, smell it - you can't really understand it. I've seen U.S. executives make business decisions without a full understanding of contextual information important to moving forward in a business relationship. I really think that if students are immersed in an experience, they'll have a better sense of the attributes and the relevant information they need to make them more successful in their business careers."

But it's so much more than that. For Rahtz and his students, it's also about serving. "I want to prepare business students to understand that companies can do well by doing good. There is no reason corporations can't contribute to the wellbeing of developing economies. I see it happening all the time, and people are better because of it. There is a place for social entrepreneurship, and I want students to take responsibility and realize that what they do preserves the world around them." He hopes students who can, will consider making corporate connections that will let them put off going to work for a year after college in order to serve in developing countries, like Cambodia.

Since meeting Ponheary Ly, Rahtz has taken three groups of students to Cambodia to work with the children and help integrate technology into Wat Bo, a relatively progressive urban school that has some technological savvy and shows promise of graduating individuals capable of leading the country forward through favorable careers in tourism. He will take four of his students for their second visit this summer to provide more sophisticated access to technology through Wi-Fi capabilities and set up interactive English language instruction. They'll also visit rural schools in North Vietnam to assess the viability of similar future initiatives in that region.

Rahtz's goals are to create an ongoing relationship between students and faculty at William & Mary, the Ponheary Ly Foundation and Wat Bo that will enrich the lives of Cambodian school children and establish, through a technological link, new opportunities for outreach from College resources such as the School of Education and School of Music. Furthermore, he hopes to develop links with American school children for cultural exchange and involve corporations for sponsorship.

Charity Boyette, one of the MBA students who travelled with Rahtz last January, is jumping on opportunities in her community. She is exploring a way to connect students at Wat Bo with elementary children in a Newport News, Virginia school where she is a parent and treasurer of the PTA. Rahtz feels the benefits of such a relationship are endless.

"We want to build a three-pronged relationship here," says Rahtz. "We want to connect this school in Cambodia, which is up to tackling technology, with schools in America as well as give corporations and private sponsors the opportunity to be part of a great endeavor. This is a way we all can reach out and do a lot of good."

Stay in touch with the project on the blog: http://wmmason.blogspot.com/