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Online Facilitator
SFU Alumnus

Melissa and two friends smiling
During this time, I was pushed to be far more courageous and intuitive.

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.

Why Cambodia?

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:

Learn About a Culture Before Immersing in it

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!

Living Like a Local
Melissa and a group of her friends and family in Cambodia

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.

It is Possible to Take a Year-long Holiday

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.

Online Facilitator
SFU Alumnus
Melissa Chungfat is an Online Facilitator at MOSAIC where she teaches professional newcomers to Canada for Settlement Online Pre-Arrival. She is an SFU Communication Co-op graduate, freelance writer, world adventurer, cyclist, and cheese connoisseur. Connect with Melissa on LinkedIn.
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Apr 7, 2016

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