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Trip offers Blackduck High School student insight to Cambodia

Morgan Jung, a senior at Blackduck High School, was one of 30 U.S. students chosen to visit Cambodia through the American Youth Leadership Program. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BLACKDUCK – Morgan Jung, a senior at Blackduck High School, was one of 30 U.S. students who spent July in Cambodia, interacting with the youth and learning about Cambodian life.

“We did so much,” Jung said. “Our days were just cramped full of things. Really, it was all about teaching us ethnic diversity.”

The three-week trip was offered through the American Youth Leadership Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of State and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It is managed by Global Explorers, a Colorado nonprofit.

The American students stayed in different cities, sometimes in hotels and sometimes with families, Jung noted.

“Being from northern Minnesota, I wasn’t used to all of the spice (in foods),” she said. “But after a few weeks I just got used to it, and once I got home, everything I tasted seemed so bland.”

Before embarking on their journey, students learned about Cambodia and its history, including atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Civilian deaths, from executions, disease, exhaustion and starvation, have been estimated around 2 million.

American students met with former prisoners who escaped and survived a war prison. They also visited the Cambodia Killing Fields, where people were massacred by the Khmer Rouge.

“You saw bones on the ground and clothes coming up from the dirt,” Jung said, softly. “That was a hard day.”

They visited Apsara Arts, an organization committed to teaching younger Cambodians traditional dances and the history of their culture. The goal, Jung said, is to preserve the culture so it is not lost.

Two years ago, Jung went to Costa Rica with the Girl Scouts and was so taken with the experience that she wanted to do it again. She found out about the American Youth Leadership Program while researching potential opportunities.

Jung, who was the only Minnesotan selected, was one of 160 applicants for the program.

One frustrating aspect of her Cambodia experience, Jung said, was that the American students never had ample time to learn Khmer, the Cambodian language. They were supposed to totally immerse themselves in Cambodian life – and not use their cell phones – so there was a language barrier. 

“We learned just how far a simple smile could go,” she said.

Cambodian students could speak a little English and the Americans were given they English-Khmer dictionaries to help them communicate, she said. Students there did not all have dictionaries of their own, so the Americans donated theirs to them as the trip came to a close.

While she was staying with one of her host families, Jung met a little boy who often would go off to play by himself. Every time she tried to approach him, he would run away.

But, one day, she saw him  playing with some little cars, just rolling them around the home. Jung was able to get near him and, soon, they were rolling the cars back and forth, driving all around the floor.

“We got to the point where we were playing together,” she said, smiling. “Hot Wheels are the key to any little boy’s heart.”

Jung said other highlights from the trip included visits to temples and a wildlife refuge and working to educate Cambodia youth about pollution and oral hygiene.

She learned corruption was quite common in the Cambodian educational system. Jung said students were able to cheat quite easily.

“It was really shocking to find out what goes on,” she said.

The American students also learned to barter over the cost of goods, though with an exchange rate of 4,000 riels per $1, she said it was difficult to argue too much.

“You found yourself thinking, ‘They probably need this dollar more than I need it,’” she said.

American students learned that Tiger Balm, a heat rub, could be applied to heal nearly any injury.

“We’d just say, ‘Oh put some Tiger Balm on it,’” she said, laughing at the memory.

Other interesting products included green tea- and raspberry-flavored Kit Kat bars.

Though the trip was about three months ago, Jung is still working to finish up the associated work. Prior to leaving, participants met with the staff of AFAR magazine, a travel publication, to learn how best to capture their experiences.

Students now are working to produce their own magazine detailing their trip, Jung said.

She also is expected to share what she learned with her fellow students. In addition, Jung said she also plans to talk to elementary school students.

“I definitely enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun and I met a lot of people,” she said.