Why UGRAD? An adventure of a lifetime

Sovannara UkSovannara Uk, Cambodia, 2013-14 UGRAD Alum

In Cambodia, children more or less take their seniors as role models. This can be a direct or indirect influence. One common thing almost all of us have experienced is a question asked by our parents or our elders. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question was also asked by my dad when I was eight years old. As a young boy, I just told him what I had heard of: “I want to be a governor,” I said. However, as I grew up and witnessed the challenges that people in my country were facing, together with my own knowledge accumulated from on-and-off-campus experiences, I found a way to realize my true passion. I wanted to be an engineer (infrastructure, water resource, and environmental engineer), an engineer who plays a pivotal role in transforming people’s way of life from nature-dependent to practical, real-world, problem-solving minded and whose purpose is to trace the root of the environmental, infrastructure, and water-resource related challenges that affect the livelihood and well-being of the people. To put it in another way: I wanted a job that could help build a decent society in which people are evenly treated, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

I could see engineering playing a potential role in introducing positive change to the country. Cambodian people have been suffering from poverty stricken conditions and sanitation problems: accessibility to safe drinking water is still limited (especially for people in rural and remote areas), the management of sewage waste water is still ineffective, and the disposal of waste into the natural environment is still done without proper treatment and regulation. Without a doubt, choosing rural engineering as a major is the best choice to fulfill my dream, a dream for a better Cambodia. I realized, however, that it was not enough to study solely in my country. I needed to go out of the hut to learn techniques used in more developed countries to introduce to Cambodia for its development.

Thus, instead of focusing merely on academic subjects, I sought opportunities that would open doors to the outside world. The second most recent scholarship I got was the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD 2013), an amazing opportunity offered by the US Department of State. Why did I decide to apply for UGRAD? The major contributing factor in deciding to fill in the application was CountPareSelf. This is a self-created word representing three independent words, all of which are Country, Parents, and Self.

With respect to Country, it is critically important that youth, including me, take steps to reinforce and refine our abilities. By embarking on the UGRAD journey, I expected that I would bring back innovative ideas, practical skills, and many relevant techniques to Cambodia. Having the opportunity to enroll in an American university was genuinely crucial for my career; besides, it was my parents’ wish to see me grasp an opportunity to broaden access to better education, get in the real world, and learn new life skills. Last but not least, to grow personally, academically and professionally was another compelling factor that contributed to my drive. I believed that living on my own in a foreign land, traveling to vibrant cities throughout the US, making friends with our fellow citizens of the world, and speaking a foreign language daily would help me grow and reach my highest potential. More importantly, studying abroad would make my CV look attractive and have a lasting impact on my future profession.

However, sought-after things are not always easy to obtain. UGRAD is among the toughest scholarships offered in Cambodia: hundreds of applicants are filtered through a narrow-tube funnel, placing three layers of membranes on the top of it, to designate only four or five candidates to join the program. Therefore, psychologically, the state of agitation will wrack your nerves, leading to discouragement, no matter how confident you are or how excellent your academic background. Fortunately, I am blessed to have a very supportive family; my parents are my anchors when troubles or difficulties loom large. They give me momentum to bike up the hill, encouraging me not to give up despite any difficulties faced.

My life journey in the US left me with a glorious, indelible mark. It was an adventure of a lifetime which provided me unique and invaluable experiences. In only a blink of time – five months – I encountered many things, both the pleasant and not-as-pleasant, with the former dominating the latter.

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I took four subjects during the semester: three related to engineering and one American Studies class. I adored taking courses with helpful, knowledgeable and approachable professors – many of whom were international themselves. However, the UGRAD program is not all about studying. Students also participate in cultural events: they travel to different natural, historical, and cultural tourism sites; they attend sporting events; they volunteer in their communities; they visit museums; they attend workshops, seminars, conferences, and symposiums. Thus, life on the UGRAD program is so rich, filled with all tastes.

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The pursuit of my studies in the US was extremely meaningful for me. With well-structured modules, specific and realistic educational objectives, state-of-art learning facilities, and conducive learning environments, Florida Gulf Coast University enabled me to reach my highest potential as a learner. I felt motivated to study in such an academic atmosphere. In addition to attending class lectures, I also participated in laboratory activities and engineering clubs to sharpen my practical skills and gain insight into the relationships between engineering and society. I had a chance to perform analysis in a special lab full of exorbitant, high-tech equipment, and to be part of the American Society of Civil Engineers. I also met many researchers and scientists in the fields of civil, water, hydrology and ecosystem engineering.

Besides school, I also had action-packed weekends and plenty of time to explore. The UGRAD program provides a monthly allowance and cultural enrichment allowance to experience America and discover the unknown. As a result, I visited Everglades National Park to see alligators in their natural habitat; traveled to beautiful cities like Atlanta, Washington, DC, and New York; explored museums the Smithsonian Museums; attended sporting events like ice hockey and basketball; and hiked the tranquil, magnificent trails within the immediate vicinity of the school complex. During my travels and experiences on the program, I met thousands of people and made hundreds of friends from a dozen countries around the world.

In short, the one good thing about being part of the Global UGRAD family is that we have a golden chance to enrich our lives, to find meaning for them. There is an old saying which says: “Travel. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” If you don’t escape from your comfort zone, you will never come to realize what the world is like and who you really are.

After being polished in America, my life is different. I have received a tremendous learning experience to widen my view on the world. It is immeasurable and will be immensely valuable in transforming me into the person I aspire to be. Over the course of the program, I found two new inspirations: the spirit of “volunteerism” and the idea of “professionalism.” Through volunteering, I was inspired to participate more actively in activities that give back to the community. Upon my return to Cambodia, I have participated in various volunteer projects with the Fulbright and Undergraduate State Alumni Association of Cambodia (FUSAAC) as well as generated my own projects with friends. Currently, I am a presenter for a radio program focusing on “Youths and Career at their Best” organized by FUSAAC, a guest speaker and a panelist in different venues, an English trainer to Cambodian youths, and a writer, all with the aim of informing young people about their role as a cornerstone of the country and enabling them to cultivate their highest potential.

Not long after participating in the program, I was inspired to pursue a higher degree upon completing my undergraduate studies. Currently, I am waiting to set off to Japan for my research study, and look forward to taking the entrance exam for a Master’s degree course in October 2015.

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All of these amazing experiences would not have been possible if I had not dared to dream big and apply for the UGRAD program. As an alum, I would like to strongly encourage all of you, readers, to grasp this divine opportunity to crack open the shell to see the light of your future. Everything is in your hands; clench it or let it go, it’s your choice.


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