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Local students selected to visit Cambodia

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MISSION VALLEY — Four students from the Mission Valley will soon travel to Cambodia for a one month as part of the U.S. State Department American Youth Leadership Program. 

The program is run through the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. The center recently received a $175,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State to implement the program focusing on environmental issues and climate change. The funding will be used for travel and lodging expenses for 20 Montana high school students ages 15 to 17 and two teachers while in Cambodia. The group will study cultural and environmental issues in Phnom Penh, the capital city, and explore the villages of Battambang, the floating villages and temples of Siem Reap and the forests of the Cardamom Mountains. 

According to a press release, the State Department’s AYLP program is designed as a cultural exchange program between the United States and other countries and their youth. As the entire program is federally funded, there is no state cost and no cost to participants, allowing for a wide pool for administrators to draw from. It is one of seven AYLP programs and fits in nicely with the Mansfield Center’s quest to promote cultural, economic and political exchange between Asia and the U.S. 

Deena Mansour, Associate Director for the Mansfield Center, said this is the first year Montana students were able to participate in the program. 

“There were actually a number of traits we were trying to identify (in students),” she said. “We were looking for resilient, curious, self-sufficient students who we felt would be successful leaving their community and comfort zone and traveling halfway across the world to a completely different world and culture and be successful.”

Mansour said this was not something to be taken lightly, as these students are going from a familiar environment to something totally beyond their comfort zones. To ensure students would succeed, Mansour said she looked for traits like community service from the heart, not assigned or for a school project, good grades and a general sense of who they are as people. 

“We were really expecting a level of maturity that you don’t always find in 15 to 17-year-olds because they are going so far from home,” she said. “They won’t have that support network, they’ll have the support of each other.”

Having been involved in Asia exchanges for more than 30 years, the Mansfield center has sent students to China in the past, and is familiar with what it takes for students to be successful. The center began by selecting students from a pool of nearly 150 eager applicants, and it was no easy task narrowing the field down to only 20. 

“All these students were just incredible in terms of what we were looking for,” Mansour said. “It was actually quite hard because we were very upfront about the qualifications we were looking for, so I would say about half the pool would have been successful.”

Not just any students would do, however, and a lucky and impressive four were chosen from the Mission Valley to participate. 

Courtney Perry, Nichole Rang and Louis Bunce from Arlee and Camaleigh Old Coyote from St. Ignatius will leave in less than a week for Cambodia — an Asian country filled with jungles, temples and one of the fastest-growing tourism industries in the region. And, while seeming a bit nervous, all four are overjoyed at the opportunity to travel halfway around the world (25-hours by plane) to reach their destination June 20. 

“I think I’m most looking forward to experiencing their culture,” Rang said, adding that she hopes the culture will lead to a new perspective on life. “Actually going to Cambodia — I think it will be a really great experience just to be around a new culture and experience what they have to offer.”

Rang said she and the other participants have had homework assignments and books to read regarding the culture and what they’re going to see once in Cambodia. This is intended to facilitate the transition by getting students used to the culture a half a world away. 

“The biggest difference I’ve seen while researching — it is hard to describe. We’re more adamant on how we need things cleaner and safer. In Cambodia, they focus on their culture, not public safety and things like that. They mainly focus on taking care of themselves in that way,” Rang said. 

And this is not Rang’s first trip outside the country. She traveled to France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria some time ago and said she loves seeing new places around the world. 

“I think traveling is amazing,” she said. “It opens my eyes to all the cultures of the world, how people interact and how different we are from them and they us.”

Bunce said he’d been raising money to go on a trip to Italy as part of a different exchange program last year, but started looking into Cambodia instead as it “was somewhere really exotic and I didn’t know much about it. I thought it would be cool to see something completely different and get that perspective.”

Bunce said he’s most excited to see a new place and get to know the people there.

All four students will represent the Mission Valley well, because as Mansour said, they are not your run-of-the-mill high schoolers. 

“It will be a very challenging trip,” she said. “It’s unusual — not a lot of 15 to 17-year-olds would be willing to embark on an adventure like this. People ask us, ‘Why would you do such a thing, why would you travel so far from home?’ And I would say all our students have had incredible family support, but to envision going to a place where it’s hot and the food is different, and the language is different and you can’t even read the street signs — these are very intrepid students and we hope this experience will support them as they decide what to do with their futures.”


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