"I want my generation to never stop learning"
Dara Veung, 25, MBA Candidate & Aspiring Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School
Dara Veung, 25, is one of Cambodia’s best and brightest students. Born in a poor rural village along the banks of the Mekong River, Dara understood early on the importance of education. At just twelve years old, he asked his parents to move to Phnom Penh in pursuit of a better education. He lived with an uncle in the capital for the first few years, before moving to stay with his aunt’s family, while his parents worked hard in their village to save up for his schooling. They invested their savings so their son could have the best education possible.
All their sacrifices paid off. Dara, who has a thirst for knowledge and a knack for learning languages, studied hard and worked his way through school at Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) as a janitor and a librarian. He graduated with a double major in Economics and French. He is now living his dream, studying for an MBA at Harvard Business School, the first for a Cambodian national at the prestigious school. Upon graduation, Dara, will join the ranks of famous alumni such as Michael Bloomberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Mitt Romney. He intends to use this golden education to giving back to his country someday. His story is an inspiration, a testimony of the power of education, hard work, and the love of his parents to sacrifice everything for their children.
I interviewed Dara and asked him about his roots, when he realized education was important, and the problems and possible solutions to Cambodia’s education system today. Writing from chilly Boston, Dara shares with me his inspirational story.
Q: Where did you grow up? What were some of your fondest memories as a child?
Dara: I was born in Chroy Krobao, a small farming/fishing village by the Mekong River in Kampong Cham, and lived there until I was twelve. My fondest memories are mostly from my rural village life and include growing corn and peanuts with my extended family, biking to school with my youngest aunt, and raising pets with my siblings. We used to have a pair of rabbits whom we loved dearly. We grew water spinach (trokuon) by the river just to feed them. Like every life on earth, they eventually died and we buried them under a lamut tree. We cried so much that our parents started to laugh at us. They still joke about it to this day.
We were very lucky compared to most kids in the village. We helped our parents with farming and fishing only after we had finished our homework. Our education has always been my parents' priority. For this reason, I did not face many difficulties in the village.
Q: When did you realize the importance of education? What difficulties, and sacrifices did you (and your family) have to make in order for you to pursue your studies?
Dara: My parents were farmers/fishermen and they wanted their children to do something different when they grew up. Our mission at the moment, they told us, was to study and to do nothing else. Personally, I realized education was important when I knew that with a good education, I could get a good job that comes with a good salary. My pocket money during primary school was 200 riels per day but I knew I wanted to have more. I decided to ask my parents to go to Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh when I was twelve years old.
Most of the challenges came after I moved to Phnom Penh. As a shy teenager from a rural town, I was often mocked by my classmates, in particular about my non-Phnom Penh accent. I also missed home a lot. I used to visit my family every other month or so and take a trans-provincial taxi (packed with nine people per car) to return to Phnom Penh at 4 am on Monday morning, just in time for school at 6 am. My mother would fetch green leaves from our backyard and my dad would catch a chicken the day before to prepare meals for me to take to the city.
Living in the capital on my own was no easy task. My difficulty, however, was nowhere near my parents. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008/09, my family was going through a very difficult time and we all lived in different places. My parents were not making any profit from their fishing business and they had to pay for my living expenses in the U.S., in addition to financing my sisters’ studies in Phnom Penh.
I was a first-year student at Grinnell College then and I worked on the weekend as a janitor and librarian to help pay for my studies there. My mother decided to move to Siem Reap to learn dentistry from my aunt who had a dental clinic there, leaving my father alone in the village. My mother hoped to open her own clinic in our village. Furthermore, they had to borrow money from fellow villagers, take a loan from the bank and cut down on everyday expenses. Many people thought my parents were crazy for betting so much on my future.
Q: What was your favorite subject in high school?
Dara: I liked studying languages. I continued studying English after moving to Phnom Penh and started to take Chinese, French, Thai, and Japanese later on. In the 10th grade, I came across a book at the French Cultural Center (Centre Culturel Francais) library in Phnom Penh about ancient Khmer and Lao languages. I tried to learn Angkorean Khmer script for a while but gave up because the resources were very limited. I managed to learn to read and write Lao on my own. Although I do not speak all of the languages fluently, I have a good understanding of the world, which kindled my desire to study abroad.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to go to Harvard Business School? What steps did you take to reach your dream?
Dara: I wanted to go to HBS while studying at Grinnell College. I realized there were a lot of business opportunities in Cambodia but had no idea how to start a business and where to get the money to do it. I thought HBS would teach me how to do that. However, admissions to HBS require a few years of professional experience. Because I was interested in economic development, I applied for a job at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, D.C. I got the job offer and worked there as a research analyst for two years.
Q: Last year over 70 percent of high school students failed the first yearly exam due to the government’s education reform efforts. In your opinion, what are the biggest problems in the education system in Cambodia today? What will be the biggest impediments to reform and what can be done to improve the reform efforts?
Dara: I believe our school curriculums are good, but our teachers are not always very qualified, especially when it comes to teaching English. Moreover, the fact that students have to attend public schools in the morning and private schools (such as Cheythavy) in the afternoon and evening is counterproductive. If high school teachers are compensated enough so that they do not require students to take extra courses at private schools, students can devote more time to studying on their own and getting involved in other activities such as sports and volunteering. Many students in Cambodia are not well-rounded and know little about the outside world (except for K-pop).
At the university level, students spend too much time taking notes. They need to do more research and write more papers. On the other hand, professors need to change the way they teach. Instead of sitting at their desk and reading from a textbook, they should spend time in class to explain relevant concepts and give examples of how the concepts are applied in the real world.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the lack of learning materials and resources. The majority of students are limited to learning from Khmer textbooks and materials, due their inability to read complex materials in other languages. There are many resources available on the Internet but they require knowing English or other widely-spoken languages.
My proposed solution to this problem is for our leaders to improve our English curriculum, to better train our teachers of English and to work with other countries to attract qualified instructors to teach at our schools. Every year, the US government and various NGOs send qualified Americans to teach at high schools and universities throughout the world. We can work with them to improve our English curriculum and to have them teach at our high schools and universities. The majority of teachers of English in Cambodia are not qualified to teach, at least from my experience. I truly believe that knowing English would open a lot of doors to our students, just as it did for me.
Q: You are the first Cambodian national to attend the MBA Program at Harvard Business School, one of the best universities in the world. What advice you would give to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Dara: My advice is for them to study English a lot and be very good at it. Watching American TV shows is an excellent way to learn English. They also need to be on the lookout for opportunities. For example, if they want to study abroad, they should start talking to people who have done so in the past, find out what opportunities exist and what the requirements are, and start preparing. Most importantly, they should never be afraid of failing. Before I got my job offer at the IMF, I had applied for and failed countless job interviews. My sisters, Vuochly and Vuochlin, took my advice to heart. They now study at colleges in the US.
Q: Who is your role model today and why?
Dara: I do not have a specific role model but I really admire Elon Musk, a serial entrepreneur who cofounded Paypal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and many other ventures. He is changing the world and I dream to do the same.
Q: What are your hopes and dreams for Cambodia and what will it take for the country to get there?
Dara: I dream that Cambodia will become one of the most developed countries in Southeast Asia. I believe that to get there, our leaders need to have visions and big ambitions for the country, the kind of ambitions that Lee Kwan Yew had for Singapore. We need a better education system, a business-friendly environment and good infrastructure.
Q: What do you plan to do when you graduate?
Dara: I want to become an entrepreneur. I am working with a team at Harvard to help more international students study in the US. Currently, two groups of international students are present in the US; those who are super smart and get scholarships to come here and those who are super wealthy, whose family pay for their education. Students who are qualified but not enough to get full scholarship often cannot come. We hope to bring more of these students to the US. In the long-term, I hope to go back to Cambodia to work in public policy and economic development.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to your generation?
Dara: I want my generation to never stop learning: to learn from our successful neighbors, to learn more about the world, and to learn how to teach our children to be successful.
*In December Dara did an interview (in Khmer) with the Phnom Penh Post. Click here to read it.
Visit www.hbs.edu to learn more about Harvard Business School
*Dara is always willing to help capable Cambodian students who have a serious interest in studying in the U.S. If you are interested and want to learn more, he encourages you to send him a message on his facebook community page. facebook.com/chandaraveung
*Watch his 20 min video tutorial below (in Khmer) on "U.S. Scholarship Overview" to learn how scholarships in the U.S. work.