Alumni Reflection: Cambodia

Chanreaksmey Sum enjoying an art gallery

Chanreaksmey Sum was a Global UGRAD participant in the first cohort to arrive in the United States following the program hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She attended Presbyterian College during the Fall semester of 2021 and wrote an essay on her website about the seven stages of her experience while she was there. She’s happy to share her essay for the Global Gazette:

Seven Stages of My UGRAD Journey

Stage 1: Excitement and Anxiety

The idea of being an international student abroad couldn’t help but make me fantasize about it like what I had seen in the movies. I kept thinking of the independence, the new people, the exploration and the special moments. I started counting the days until my departure. With great excitement comes great anxiety. There are many what-if questions along the way like what if I missed my flights, what if I got lost, what if I didn’t catch up with my studies, or what if I couldn’t make friends? Here is a reminder: always remember that it is better to live and be present than ask and worry.

Stage 2: The Familiarizing Phase

Upon my arrival to the United States, I had to adapt to my new, yet temporary, life. Getting used to the time zone was the first challenge. Living in a community takes a lot of understanding, consideration, and respect. We lived in a shared space including a dorm (with suitemates), gym, laundry room, and dining hall. I started to enjoy the fast food buffet style in my first month. Meeting new people and introducing myself, my culture and my story was amusing.

Fall colors on the campus of Presbyterian College

Stage 3: Mixed-Feelings

At times, it felt lonely. I felt homesick, too. I started getting tired of the food. Classes started to be difficult. Blending in was getting harder. Things were gloomy for a couple of weeks. But I hung on tight and asked for help. Luckily, I got through those dark times quickly with constant support from my surroundings. I was on time for the train that led me to the brighter side of my stay. The rest of my time was well-spent with the people who cherished me. I ate out a few times a week. My professors were more patient with me. I was able to finish the semester with good grades like many other exchange students who worked hard.

Stage 4: The clock is ticking

Having gotten used to everything, I was able to laugh and have so much fun with the people I’d come to know. But I made a big mistake, I counted the days I had left instead of making the days count (as cliché as it may sound). As an experienced exchange student, it’s safe for me to tell you that counting the days is a waste of time. Your moment is now. You have the rest of your life to reminisce about these moments in the U.S., but you need to create those moments now – and counting days aren’t part of the plan.

Stage 5: The Attachment

In just a few months, my bonds grew unexpectedly. The university, the community, and the people had become so familiar to me. During this phase, I finally understood the saying “You still haven’t met all the people you’re going to love yet.” I once had a conversation with a close advisor on my campus. I started to feel sad as I prepared to return home because it felt as if I had left a piece of my heart there and it would never be full again. She instead told me, “I don’t think a part of your heart is left here. You’ll always carry these experiences with you, but your heart will grow bigger from all the love you’ve given and received from all the places you have been to.”

Sunset at Presbyterian College

Stage 6: The Wrap-Up

I had three free days before my departure following my final week of exams. Those days were spent with my loved ones, and featured many walks around campus. My heart was full of love for everything there. It was incredibly difficult to fathom how I could leave behind the things I loved so much. Before I knew it, I had to push my feelings aside and start packing. I missed saying many goodbyes, but if I’d said all the goodbyes I should have, it would have been much more heartbreaking. That said, don’t leave silently. Say “goodbye” and “see you again.” Find your closure. Love can live far away, too.

Stage 7: The Aftermath

After two days of flights, home was calling me. I was distracted by the reunion of myself to my usual days back home. After a while, it started to hit me: my exchange program had ended. It’s crazy how everything felt like a dream though I know it had happened so beautifully. Things began to fall into place as I started counting all the things I was most grateful for during the past four months.

The Growth & Key Takeaways:

I spent a lot of time reviewing my photos to relive the moments. Reflection is essential, but it took me a long time to process this experience and identify what I learned. I became kinder, more considerate, and more communicative.

The world is big and I am small. It is important to learn from your mistakes, take chances, and explore yourself. I became more resilient and open to changes when it came to my life plan. I graduated a year later due to this program, but it was more than worth it. Living independently is tough, but now that I’ve been exposed to new cultures and new places, I am well-equipped for my future.

Putting this experience into short paragraphs is truly a challenge, but this is a glimpse of what studying abroad is like. It’s not all about travel and fun, it’s about leaving bits of your heart in different places; leaving a huge yet brief part of your life in the United States while carrying back only the memories. Any hardships were outweighed by personal growth and memories. I would never change this experience for the world, and my time in the Global UGRAD program is a memory I will cherish for a lifetime.

A collage compiling Chanreaksmey’s experience in the United States