Written by Vince Stange
Over-age and Beating the Odds
Me Sang high school is a large complex that sits off of the main eastbound dirt road, about 2 kilometers from the town center. With over 500 students enrolled it is the biggest entity around, by far. Tucked in the back of the campus, is a small room that has long been designated as the “Vocational Training Room,” containing about 20 sewing machines with dust covers, remaining from the former phase, which successfully trained [mostly] young girls in the art of sewing and tailoring.
Now, the scene contrasts starkly.
Opposite the sewing machines stands a long workbench strewn with wires and extension cords, crowded by 11 motivated teenagers concentrating on a number of microscopic tasks. This is the first class to participate in a “Small Electronics Repair” program, one that focuses mostly on the repair of cell phones; and, unlike its sewing predecessor, is being taught to a group of all boys.
At the back of the table, one boy sticks out, as he works closely in collaboration with his teacher. His name is Mov Phov and his teacher, Sothea Kheang says, “He is a very resilient, hard worker.” After listening to Mov’s life story and how he found himself sitting in a classroom with a soldering iron and electric contact cleaner, it becomes apparent just how true his teacher’s observations are.
Mov is 20 years old, but is just a few months into his 11th grade year. After inquiring about this apparent age-grade disparity, he goes-on to explain that both of his parents passed away over 10 years ago, and he and his siblings (he is the 3rd of 5 children in his family) were taken in by a neighborhood “aunty,” although she is not actually a relative.
When he was about 12, his foster mother insisted that he stop going to school for a few years so that he could “work as a tractor driver for one of the large-scale farmers, to earn extra income for the family.” Mov dropped-out for 4 years, vowing to return as soon as his family was able to manage financially for him to do so. True to his word, and despite that fact that the vast majority of Cambodian children who stop going to school never make it back to the classroom, he did so.
Though it was discouraging for him to always be nearly 4 years older than his classmates, Mov made it all the way to high school; and, last school year, when he caught word that the Small Electronics Repair program would begin, he was one of the first to apply. He said, “I was always interested in fixing things, and I know that this could also be a way to always make money and have a back-up plan if I am unable to go to college.”
Today, “he is one of the most focused and motivated students,” says Lokru Sothea, “he’s always coming even when the roads are bad and attendance is low.” Not only is he learning a lot about fixing cell phones and other small electronics, but he’s able to make a bit of money to pay for school fees and materials. “Sometimes my neighbors will have an issue with a phone and they will come find me, because they know that I am learning about this,” he states.
Just 8 months into the program, Mov is able to make about $5 to $10 a month while also learning new skills. “It’s not a lot of money, but it’s just enough to pay for some school materials,” he says.
As for the future, Mov says, “I am still worried. I’m worried about my Aunty and my little sister, but things are going a lot better than they used to.”
He plans to continue his studying into next year until he takes the 12th grade exit exam. “If I pass, I will be excited to go to college to learn really good English and to eventually become a professional translator. If I don’t pass, these skills will be a great backup.” He went on to explain that he plans to fix cellphones as a side job if he gets to college, in order to pay for his living expenses in Phnom Penh.