From Rural Cambodia to the United States—And Back: An Interview with Vatey Srun Kea

Nations & States co-founder Edward Mahabir was fortunate enough to interview Vatey Srun Kea, a young woman from rural Cambodia who is pursuing a career in international development. Kea is an Investment Manager at Investing in Infrastructure (3i) Cambodia.

EM: Growing up in Cambodia gives you a different worldview than most of our other contributors and readers. What can you tell us about your background and how that experience has influenced who you are and the work you do?

VSK: I was born into a large family and lived with eight people in a shanty. My mother had to quit her education in primary school to financially support her family and help her own mother take care of her siblings. She ended up working from home, selling groceries for a living. My father is the eldest son of a farmer family. He also struggled financially until he became a high school teacher.

Both my parents have spent days and nights working hard to support my basic needs and education. Seeing them sacrifice blood and sweat for my education has inspired me work even harder to pursue my dreams, and I hope to repay them one day. This is at the core of what drives me to be hardworking and persistent in what I do.

I now have a fine job and can earn enough to support my sister, who studies in the city. I am very happy. I personally experienced living in poverty, so I know clearly how hard it is. That is why I am passionate about working in the development sector and doing volunteering activities to help underprivileged people. I just hope those people will be given opportunities and feel motivated because I believe opportunity and motivation are two noble things that have helped me to achieve what I have today.

EM: I have heard you talk at length in the past about how your experience as a woman in Cambodia presented unique challenges and opportunities for you growing up. What would you like to share with our readers about that experience?

VSK: In Cambodia, men are widely considered to be superior while women are considered to be inferior. That means women are given less opportunities in almost every aspect of life. The situation has improved a bit in the city, but things have not changed much at all in rural areas. Most women tend to their families and never make it to university. Many end up working in the rice fields, in garment factories, or migrate to find a job.

To get where I am today, I had to break through this gender barrier—both in my family and in Cambodian society as a whole. Entrenched sexism still exists, and, unfortunately, most parents have low expectations for their daughters. My own father, a high school physics teacher, held this view. I remember one day when I was in high school, my father wanted me to drop out. He got angry at me because I took too many classes and could not manage time to do housework. He did not allow me to go to school that afternoon, but I refused to listen to him. I told my mother that no matter what, I would never give up my education. I went to school in tears and cried all afternoon.

From that day onward, I have stuck to my commitment to studying hard and achieving as much as I can to make my father proud and prove myself—and I succeeded. I always got top scores in class, and in my senior year I got a second-place provincial award in physics. I proved to my father, my teachers, my friends, and community that girls could be as good at science as boys. To my great delight, my father started supporting me to pursue higher education because he realized I would never stop, even if he resisted.

My parents were worried about where I would stay when I went to study in Phnom Penh, the capital, because we do not have any relatives to rely on, nor could we afford renting a house. Fortunately, the Harpswell Foundation, a selective non-profit dormitory and leadership center for women, came into my life and provided me a safe and comfortable place to live. Ultimately, I could study in Phnom Penh. Harpswell provided me with a strong sense of community and sisterhood, leadership skills, and a dream of studying abroad. I thought I would just go to university, get good grades, graduate, get a good job, and get married. But my vision has changed. I have changed to have bigger dreams. I have earned opportunities to travel to several countries and I have no intention to stop now.

I am only the second woman in my village to study abroad, so I also try really hard to inspire more women in my village and other parts of Cambodia—especially women living in rural Cambodia—to dream big and break the old gender barriers.

EM: After earning your degree in Cambodia, you received a one-year fellowship from the Harpswell Foundation to study in the United States at Bowdoin College. What were some of the highlights of your time in the United States? How did that year change you? What lessons have you taken home with you?

VSK: Spending a year in the United States was very worthwhile. It was a year of exploring new things, making new friends, and discovering new parts of myself. I went to different parts of the country, so it was eye-opening to learn a lot more about the realities of life in the United States. For example, I was there during the 2014 midterm elections, so I learned more about the U.S. election process and the structure of the U.S. Congress. I was also particularly interested in the ongoing social and political debates about topics such as immigration and race relations in the United States—and the power that youth voices and civil society had in elevating these debates.

I also got to understand Americans a bit better, and made a lot of new friends from all around the world. Some of those friends came from countries I had never even heard of before, so it was very interesting for me to learn about them personally, their countries, and their cultures. More than anything else, I learned to be true to myself about what I want. I learned to live my life to the fullest without being afraid of being judged.

EM: You returned to Cambodia last summer. What have you been working on since you returned home? What do you hope to achieve in the future?

VSK: I was excited to finally return home to Cambodia, but it was not long before I was travelling again. That same summer, I went to Hong Kong to attend an intensive summer course in political economy.

Since October I have been working as an Investment Manager for a development project funded by the Australian government. The project is called Investing in Infrastructure (3i) Cambodia. It is designed to promote and catalyze business growth in Cambodia’s infrastructure sector. We work with the private sector to expand household and business access to utilities and other services. This will create new enterprise opportunities in rural villages and other remote parts of Cambodia, and will help generate inclusive health and welfare benefits for Cambodians, including the poor.

In the long term, I hope to pursue a master’s degree in International Development in the United States in the next few years and really push myself to be an international expert in development work and climb the career ladder to work at regional and international organizations like the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or the United Nations Development Program.


Vatey Srun Kea is an Investment Manager at Investing in Infrastructure (3i) Cambodia. Born and raised in Cambodia, Vatey holds a degree in Development Economics from Royal University of Law, Economics, and International Studies in Phnom Penh. In 2014, she was awarded a prestigious Harpswell Foundation scholarship to study abroad in the United States at Bowdoin College for a full year.

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