I can't believe eight years have already passed since I graduated from Simon Fraser University. The skills I gained through Communication Co-operative Education have helped me land jobs in very interesting roles where I have had the privilege of working with a variety of people including Cambodian scholarship students, immigrants, and businesses. However, upon graduation, I didn't take the conventional route of beginning a career, committing to a mortgage, starting a family, and retiring. After ten years of working, I decided to quit my jobs to volunteer in Cambodia for six months and see where life would lead me. I took SFU's message of engaging the world quite literally. While I loved my jobs, my colleagues, and my adventurous life in Vancouver, I had never lived anywhere else and I couldn't resist this compulsion to explore the world.
In 2009, I did a two-week fundraising cycling trip in Cambodia with a fellow SFU graduate to raise money for the non-profit PEPY Empowering Youth, an organization dedicated to empowering Cambodian youth to improve the quality of their lives and achieve their dreams. During the cycling trip, I imagined myself living in the country for some time. When we returned to Canada, I worked for four more years until I accepted a six-month volunteer position with PEPY Empowering Youth in 2013. Afterwards, I was going to travel for an indefinite amount of time. I had no solid itinerary at the time and I lived week to week. While I was travelling, I ended up visiting seven other countries in Southeast Asia and discovered that Cambodia was my favourite country to be in, which is why I went back to work there with a travel company for a year. To say that these were the best years of my life is a huge understatement. During this time, I was pushed to be far more courageous and intuitive. These are the biggest lessons I learned:
Ironically, I worked both with very direct and indirect cultures in Cambodia. Many Cambodians are often taught not to speak up against authorities and to avoid conflict. So if there is a problem, sometimes they may not say anything at all or speak to other people about it indirectly. On the other hand, the company I worked for is European-owned and had a very direct working culture where my colleagues and I were encouraged to argue and defend our ideas to our boss.
Building a social circle from scratch
What's interesting about working in the non-profit sector in Siem Reap is that people easily get into cliques and there is not much separation between your professional and social life. In a small tourist town, so many people know each other and it's easy to go out everywhere with the people you work with. I became aware of this and pushed myself to go to meet-up groups alone to expand my social circle and often met unfriendly personalities. But despite this, I kept attending events and connecting with local people and eventually, I made some lifelong friends who invited me to parties, events such as hotel openings, and even weddings!
I was very lucky that I became close to one of my colleagues and ended up becoming an adopted family member. A few months into our friendship, I began eating every day with a family of nine, going to people's hometowns in the countryside, attending big cultural ceremonies, and bartering in Cambodian at the market.
A budget of $8,000 lasted me a year in Asia, including flights. No, there are no zeros missing in that figure. Usually, people can't believe how much I stretched my dollars, but the reality is that it is cheaper to travel and live somewhere long-term. Instead of paying $80 a night for accommodation, my rent ranged from living for free to $150 a month! I cooked a lot with friends, knew where the best deals were, and had my wonderful local friends who took me to the most amazing events as a guest.
I wouldn't have gained all of my incredible memories if I had gone to Cambodia on a three-week holiday because it took months to build a whole new life and learn to go with the flow of my surroundings. I was surprised when many people told me that I was brave to quit my job to go to an unknown place by myself. I never thought it was a brave thing to do, but rather felt like I didn't have a choice other than to honour my curiosity of the world. On top of this, co-op gave me the tools to secure jobs in places I wanted to work. I highly recommend people go beyond the three-week holiday and use your skills to truly engage the world by exploring it as much as possible.