From May till July of this year (2018), I had the pleasure of working with the staff, students, and volunteers of JWOC as an outside consultant conducting an evaluation of the Scholarship Program, which had just completed its 10th year. While I anticipated having a good experience with this project, I did not expect the experience to have such a deep impact on me.

When I first arrived in Siem Reap in May, I was immediately aware that the life I would be living for the next couple months–the weather, food, sanitation, language, roads, and customs– would be much different than I was use to. I knew this going in, but it was different to be there and having the experience with all of my senses.

The immediate cultural shock wore off within a few days, and I was welcomed into JWOC openly by the entire staff and many students. Little by little as I talked with staff and students I began to build a greater understanding of the organization and some of the impacts it was making. I also became accustomed to the way of life in Siem Reap – and really enjoyed it.

My work included training students to conduct phone surveys with JWOC Scholarship Alumni. Students completed 99 phone surveys in 6 weeks. We started off by training large groups of students, but a handful were really interested in the survey process so this smaller group  completed the bulk of the survey work and improved their surveying skills. To ensure we were capturing the information we were seeking through the alumni survey, I sought input from the staff, particularly to be sure it made sense based on local language norms. Once the staff was happy and understood the questions and the intention, I hired a local professional translation service to create the Khmer version of the survey. After receiving the translation, the staff again provided helpful input for a final updated copy. Having the survey in both English and Khmer allowed Scholarship Alumni to take the survey in whichever language they were most comfortable with.

Beyond this, I also conducted 16 interviews with students who were in the program at the time. English proficiency varied from student to student, so I made sure to have a translator present to help ensure full understanding of questions and provide responses. It was these interviews that had the biggest impact on me.

One of the questions we asked in these interviews was, “What do you think JWOC could do to improve experiences for scholarship students?” This question was aimed at finding out how the experience could be improved for the individual current students. I was surprised to find that many students answered in a similar way — they did not want any changes for themselves, they wanted JWOC to grow so they can bring more students into the program.

These answers struck me. Almost every student is working full time, in school full time, and also doing 7+ hours of service work for the local community as part of the Scholarship Program, and instead of saying something that would benefit themselves — they expressed a desire to take others with them on this journey. As I thought about these truly selfless responses, it gave me new meaning to the name of the organization – Journeys Within Our Community. These answers let me see within the community of JWOC students – they are hardworking, they are committed to their studies, they are committed to helping their communities, and, when given the chance to improve the program they want nothing additional for themselves, they want to take others with them on the journey. That is incredible. I have gotten goosebumps or teary-eyed every time I have brought it up since I have been back in the U.S. because it has had that much of an impact on me.

The research showed really promising results. Of the 99 alumni interviewed, 93% are making above the living wage, and 45% are making wages associated with highly skilled positions. These results were above what was expected by myself, as the evaluator, or by the organization’s staff. The research also showed that JWOC is providing extensive opportunities for skills-building, and over time there has been an increase in the number of key jobs-skills students are learning. Beyond the research, my experience showed me that JWOC is not only providing great opportunities, but the students in the program are some of the hardest-working young people I have had the pleasure of interacting with.

I am grateful for JWOC’s staff, students, and the Siem Reap community for welcoming me. It was an incredible experience that I will always hold with great value.

The biggest takeaway I have from my time in Cambodia came from students at JWOC. They taught me I need to be much more committed to taking others forward with me. I have built a career working for nonprofits, NGOs, and communities, but I cannot just work and volunteer to help others, I must take them with me. I am grateful for this unexpected lesson I received from the JWOC students.

This blog post was written by Patrick McBride. You can find the final report here: Journeys Within Our Community 2018 Scholarship Program Evaluation.