volunteer abroad ubelong cambodia university of wisconsin madison

“Finding enjoyment in everything the culture offers.”


Jake Heyka is a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison majoring in international studies and political science with a minor in global health. He plans on pursuing a career in international development that allows him to make a contribution in disadvantaged communities of the developing world. For two weeks over his winter break he volunteered in our teaching English project in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We had the opportunity to learn more about his experience in Cambodia in this interview.

What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in Phnom Penh?
I speak French, so Phnom Penh was an attractive destination because of its French colonial history. I’ve also studied Buddhism and Asian cultures, and wanted to immerse myself in an Asian country to experience what life was really like there.

What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
Kids who didn’t want to learn. There weren’t many, but in a couple of my classes some of the kids didn’t want to work on their English and were somewhat disruptive to the class. I overcame it by having them answer more questions than the majority of other students, which forced them to participate and focus on learning.

From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
Patience. You need to be ready to understand that things are different in Cambodia and you’re going to have to learn a lot to adapt. I was teaching English, but most of the time I was the one learning how to assimilate and accept another culture. It can be frustrating, you might not get the language or why things are as they are, but you have to be patient and keep learning.

Perseverance. Again, it can be a challenge to adapt to a new culture. You have to keep pushing yourself to learn and understand the things around you. Also, in class you need to be determined to have the students learn. In one of my classes there were only three students, but it was still difficult sometimes to get them to understand what I was trying to teach them. We take speaking English for granted, but for them it’s completely new sounds and letters. You need to keep trying to get your message across. I sometimes found myself going on 20 minute tangents or saying the same thing in four different ways. But that’s OK, that’s how they learn.

Finding enjoyment in everything that the culture offers. Everyday things in Cambodia, even the smallest ones, are different. They may seem strange, but you need to realize that they’re actually the same, just different. To do so I think you need to let yourself enjoy and appreciate even the smallest things, whether it’s walking in an open air market or just trying to chat in Khmer with somebody on a street corner.

What kind of impact did you have on the community?
I exposed them to American culture, which they had never experienced before. They had only heard of Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. I showed them pictures of snow and where I come from in Wisconsin. I also explained how the US is a multi-cultural country with people of all colors and ethnicities. This was a new concept to them because Cambodia is a very homogenous society in which almost everyone is Khmer.

I also helped them improve their English. We worked a lot on their “R” and “S” sounds, which are difficult for them to pronounce. They also had an opportunity to hear a native speaker, and we worked a lot on the more complex vocabulary.

How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
It depended on where I was. In the markets people saw me and thought, “Oh look, I can up the price on this guy.” But once you got to meet them the local people became much more enjoyable. First impressions for the Cambodians are important; they’re conservative. But as long as I showed respect and communicated that I was there as a guest who was volunteering and looking to learn about their culture, they were wonderful. The key was demonstrating to them that I truly wanted to experience their culture.

What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I’m better at impromptu speaking and thinking than I thought I was. Being in front of a class, I oftentimes found myself having to speak on my feet, and I think I did a good job. I also learned that I can relate to various people; much more so that I had previously conceived. My students had completely different backgrounds from me and there was little common ground. Nonetheless, I found ways to relate to them by telling stories, looking for similarities in how we viewed things and so on. My fear of going abroad is also gone. I had initially feared being alone and not fitting in, but I never felt like that in Phnom Penh. And finally, this trip made me realize even more that I want to continue my studies in international development. I saw firsthand what I had been learning about in college and loved it.

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Related post:
Watch Jake’s interview who volunteered with UBELONG in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.