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Local students find inspiration in Cambodia

By Lailani Upham

Arlee students Louis Bunce, Courtney Perry, and Nicole Rang, and Missoula Big Sky High School student Emma Didier light incense in respect to a temple in Phnom Penh. (Courtesy photo) Arlee students Louis Bunce, Courtney Perry, and Nicole Rang, and Missoula Big Sky High School student Emma Didier light incense in respect to a temple in Phnom Penh. (Courtesy photo)

MISSOULA — The idea was to spark an interest in learning about foreign cultures and grow a cultural understanding in youth leaders of America to advance in an international dialogue through funding from the United States Department of State. The four students from Lake County did just that.

In June 20 students from Montana embarked on an adventure to Cambodia for 27 days, and four of them were Native students in Lake County.

Arlee High School students, Louis Bunce, 17; Nicole Range, 17; and Courtney Perry, 17; and St. Ignatius student Camaleigh Old Coyote, 16, were part of the team.

According to Kelsey Stamm, Mansfield Center project manager, The State Department awarded the University of Montana Mansfield Center $175,000 to send 20 students and two teachers to learn about environmental issues facing both Cambodia and Montana.

Stamm says the U.S. Embassy has a strong presence in Cambodia.

“The State Department chooses the countries based on a number of factors, but Cambodia is a great place to travel. The people are so kind and generous, it is safe, and the history and current affairs are fascinating,” Stamm stated.

“In fact, our group got to not only meet the ambassador to Cambodia, Ambassador Todd, but we spent 45 minutes with him,” Stamm added.

Stamm stated that the focus of study for the trip was to compare and contrast environmental issues affecting both regions.

“We have a lot of similarities with Cambodia, which is why this program focused on shared environmental issues between Montana and Cambodia. From wildlife and habitat conservation, to natural resource extraction, to ecotourism, students are able to compare our experiences as Montanans with those of Cambodians. This creates really interesting discussions and learning opportunities.”

Arlee High School student Nicole Rang said what she took away from the trip was the importance of environmental protection.

“There is a lot of problems in the world and it would be amazing to see a change in the health of our world and an increase of environmental and wildlife protection.”

Rang said the comparison was that of appreciation for Montana and the United States.

“For the most part life in Cambodia is a lot different compared to how we live in Montana. I don’t think you can truly appreciate Montana, let alone the United States of America, until you visit a developing country like Cambodia,” Rang added.

The most enjoyable of the trip was meeting other high school students and spending time with the Khmer people she said. “It was a great experience visiting many well known monuments and temples with these amazing historical backgrounds, especially learning even more about the importance of these locations by students and community members. It was truly an experience I will never forget.”

Cambodia is not the first trip abroad for Rang. She has been to Italy, Austria, Switzerland and France. “Even though it was not my first trip abroad, I feel that Cambodia was something I could honestly say I’ve never experienced before.”

St. Ignatius High School student Camaleigh Old Coyote, Crow and Salish, says her first trip abroad was not what she expected.

“I heard Cambodian people were very nice and respectful, but I was surprised to see how excited and eager they were to hear our stories as well as share theirs.”

Camaleigh Old Coyote bonds with a Cambodian youngster during a community service project at a rural kindergarten that serves underprivileged children. (Courtesy photo) Camaleigh Old Coyote bonds with a Cambodian youngster during a community service project at a rural kindergarten that serves underprivileged children. (Courtesy photo)

Old Coyote said the trip was full of great adventure, but her preferred experience was meeting the little ones.

“We did so many great and adventurous things on this trip, but my overall favorite was going to the town of Kep, and meeting with the kindergarten students. These well-mannered little Cambodian preschoolers were so eager to see and play with us. After about ten minutes, I had the cutest little girl glued to my hip. Even though we only stayed at the kindergarten for a short time, I cried when I had to leave. Homesickness mixed with precious little kids who don’t know a thing about us being different from them, automatically made me an emotional wreck,” said Old Coyote.

Old Coyote’s experience in comparing both regions of the world carried a large impact, “I really had a hard time with the stench of a third world country. I struggled everyday with not having fresh clean air to breath due to the lack of sanitation throughout the country; making coming home to the fresh mountain air a lot more exciting than it sounds. It really taught me to respect my environment and appreciate where I grew up. When you come home after being away for a month, a little thing such as taking a big, deep breath of mountain air is something you won’t take for granted again.”

The other contrast was the economy for Old Coyote, “After traveling to Cambodia you really do appreciate what you have a little bit more. I saw families of six living in a tiny shack on the side of the road or on the side of a landfill. Those images will always be with me as a reminder of how fortunate I really am. After being away for awhile you really miss home; and boy did I! But after being home for a few days, I wanted to go on another adventure. You could say my desire for wanderlust is very strong now. My ambitions to work overseas as a foreign officer have been strengthened,” she said.

The other contrast were cultures. “The Cambodian life and Montana life couldn’t be more different, but how I see them similar is through strong beliefs in their culture. Coming from a proud Absalooke and Salish oriented family and growing up on a reservation, I have always had a strong belief and respect for my cultures; like Cambodians do. Cambodia is a Buddhist country, and their way of life very much revolves around their culture. A similarity of the two cultures is in Cambodian culture; they let the oldest person eat first, than it goes by age order after that. Native Americans serve the elders first, who can then eat their food first. Down in Cambodia, poverty was everywhere and very shocking; but for that reason, it reminded me of home. All reservations in Montana are known for low education rates, oppression, jobless communities, and hunger. Almost the exact same in Cambodia,” Old Coyote explained.

Courtney Perry learns from a local expert how to weave artisan products using water hyacinth, an aquatic invasive plant in the Tonle Sap Lake. (Courtesy photo) Courtney Perry learns from a local expert how to weave artisan products using water hyacinth, an aquatic invasive plant in the Tonle Sap Lake. (Courtesy photo)

Cambodia was also Arlee High School student Courtney Perry’s first trip abroad, she also mentioned it was not what she expected. She was homesick, especially during Arlee powwow she said, but the program did a great job at keeping them all busy and entertained she said.

“I enjoyed a lot of things on this trip, the thing I enjoyed most was their culture. It was so beautiful and so much different from mine. I absolutely loved it. Seeing how they did things that tie along with their culture like the circus stunts, apsara dancers and their religion,” Perry explained.

She said she noticed the passion to save their culture as well was prevalent. “I’ve seen very little of that kind of cultural revitalization with Native Americans in Montana. Another thing that I enjoyed was getting to meet new people. The other participants from Montana were all easy to get along with and really helped others when they got homesick.”

Meeting the Cambodians were the best part of the trip Perry said. “Our Cambodian guides were really nice and understanding when we had really detailed questions. They tried to answer everything as best as they could. Our high school partners were amazingly good at English; sometimes they even corrected us. It was really nerve racking to meet them at first, but we got along really well especially with our first high school in Phnom Phen. Everyone there were super nice and I was surprised because you don’t really see that here.”

Perry said although the trip was entertaining and she gained understanding, it was also very challenging.

“I didn’t know their language, culture, ways of living, and I was not ready to eat rice everyday. Also being away from my family, we are really close knitted. So being gone for almost a whole month was really challenging. At first I thought a month wasn’t too long, but the night before and day of leaving I was getting second thoughts. I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it because I wouldn’t have a close support system other then Nichole. I was super scared, but excited to start a new adventure. Going on this trip has made me grow up more, be more independent, but also realize how important family is.”

Nicole Rang learns how to weave water hyacinth into usable mats, a craft that provides local women with a sustainable livelihood and rids the lake of invasive plant species. (Courtesy photo) Nicole Rang learns how to weave water hyacinth into usable mats, a craft that provides local women with a sustainable livelihood and rids the lake of invasive plant species. (Courtesy photo)

Rang stated the Flathead Rez group are planning on working together on three service projects. “Our first project is to work on cleaning up litter around our school and Hesse Memorial Garden, our next project is to clean up litter along our community nature trail, finally our last service project will be to clean up an old basketball court in our community. We plan to finish the first two projects before mid October and our last project on or before April’s Earth Day next year in 2014. We already had an idea of the service projects we wanted to do before we went to Cambodia. Our trip did help us decide for sure that we wanted to work on the importance of litter control in our town though. We are going to need all the help we can get and everyone is welcome to help.”

Old Coyote believes all Native students should experience a trip abroad.

“Not only does it change the way you look at everyday things, but it makes you yearn for more knowledge. I can’t emphasis enough about how important understanding different parts of the world is. But, I also understand that it is not always an option or an interest for most teenagers, that’s why I thank the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center and the Department of State so much for this opportunity. By giving me a new perspective, strengthening my passion for travel, and giving me a new ambition for a career overseas has made me a stronger person today.”

Old Coyote’s community service project will be recycling in all the schools. “Before I do this, I will give an educational presentation about why we should be composting and recycling and the effects it has in our environment. Also, I plan on having a monthly ‘town beautification day’ to pick up and clean the trash that was not composted, recycled, or just lying on the ground. I chose this service project because the garbage and sanitation in Cambodia is extremely bad, but typical for a developing country. Even though my community isn’t nearly as close to these conditions as in Cambodia, it is something we all need to be aware of. If I have a successful cooperation in my community, I hope to extend this campaign throughout this and other reservations.”

For those interested in helping the students with the service projects they can contact Arlee High School or Nicole Rang at fcclanichole@gmail.com.

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