Faces of Dryden: Student feeds a crowd to reach for his dreams

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By Cathy Wakeman

 

Siem Reap, nicknamed Temple Town, lies in Northwestern Cambodia at the gateway to the Angkor region, home to the world famous Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. It was the cultural and religious center of the Khmer empire and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

How does Siem Reap, halfway around the world, garner a place in the first Faces of Dryden column?

Even halfway around the world, people from Dryden are sharing their skills and talents and making the world a better place.

Susan Cerretani, an English professor at Tompkins Cortland Community College, attended a conference of Cornell’s South East Asia Program (SEAP) to learn more about opportunities for the college in South East Asia. During the winter session of the 2015-2016 school year, Cerretani shadowed the SEAP team during its study abroad winter session to Siem Reap. This team approach helped pave the way for Cerretani to learn about the culture, working with other scholars and developing a course for TC3 students.

The course Transformative Travel Writing was born of this trip and a cooperative venture with Anthropology professor Tina Stavenhagen-Helgren, and has continued ever since. Students study and prepare with their professors during the fall semester, then study abroad for a three-week session between semesters. “The two disciplines gelled beautifully,” Cerretani said. “Anthropology invites students to make observations without judging, to look at our perceptions and not put our cultural and personal perspectives on what we see. We learn about ourselves and grow as we write what we know about a place.”

Part of the class’ visit included a teaching a journal writing class at Anjali House. Anjali House’s mission is “supporting street children through education, healthcare, and the arts.” They also provide two meals a day, personal hygiene supplies and training and healthcare to all of their students. Cerretani’s class included journal writing and creating, with the donated journals and writing supplies that came across the ocean in her luggage. “We prepared to work with a certain age group, but wound up working with students from ages 4 to 21.”

Another stop in Siem Reap was the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS). Cerretani describes it as a place that “provides intellectuals a place to study about Cambodia. Visiting scholars do research here, and then make that research available. So much of the culture and history of Cambodia was lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.”

Her trips to Cambodia have proved effective in so many ways. One of Cerretani’s goals was to find a Cambodian student who might not otherwise have the opportunity who could come to study at TC3. After working with Anjali House and CKS over several years, once she made her request known, one name was apparent to everyone, Rattana Mai.

Rattana was educated through Anjali House and then went on to work as an Assistant Librarian at CKS.

Mai explains, “After I finished high school, I had a dream to continue my studies in the United States. I shared this dream with one of the board members of Anjali House, Sue Guinee, an American writer. She shared this with the director of CKS, who helped me get a job there as an assistant librarian. Sue told Susan she knows one young guy who has a dream to continue his studies in the US. That was me. After that, the director made the connection between Sue, Susan and I.”

By January, of 2018, Mai was on a plane and leaving his country for the first time. After flights stopping in Myanmar, Dubai, Milan and finally JFK, with three nerve-wracking trips through customs, he took the first step towards his dream. After a whirlwind two day tour of New York City including Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Public Library, Grand Central Station, the World Trade Center memorial and the ferry to Statue of Liberty, he arrived in Tompkins County to fields of never before seen snow. He started classes that spring semester.

“I want to graduate from TC3 in the International Studies program,” Mai said. “If I can, I would like to continue to a four-year school in the future. I want to be a lawyer and a politician. I hope I can use my knowledge to help the people in my country. I am hoping to help make some changes in my country with justice and a big aim to fight corruption and poverty.”

After hearing this amazing young man’s story at one of their weekly meetings, members of the Dryden Rotary club wanted to help out with fundraising for his tuition expenses. Dryden Rotary has hosted a foreign exchange student at Dryden High School for the last 12 years, so encouraging international students in their studies is central to its mission.

Wanting to work for the cause, Mai will be utilizing skills from his teen job to cook up an authentic Cambodian dinner of fresh spring rolls, tom yum soup, chicken or tofu amok and fresh fruit. He says, “I will love to share our Cambodian food with them. It is probably a different taste that some of them might have never tried. They will help a young man afford his studies at TC3.”

The dinner will be held at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 375 George Road on Saturday, Aug.11. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, cost $25 and are available by contacting Susan at 607-423-5957.

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