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Alumnus of the month

Ruth Lemon (MA History 2013-15) graduated from Warwick in July 2015. She has been living in Cambodia for the past 18 months where she teaches English part time. She has volunteered and worked at Sovann Komar’s Children Village sporadically since 2009. Sovann Komar is an orphanage, home to 55 children who live with surrogate parents in a safe, clean, village-like community. She now runs SKOPE (Sovann Komar Outreach Program for Education) which is the part of their charity seeking to help others outside their orphanage. They locate poor, rural schools and provide vital education supplies such as exercise books, water wells, toilet blocks, teaching equipment, and stationery.
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How did you go from Warwick to Cambodia?
It was actually the other way around. I lived in Cambodia in 2009 during my gap year and completely fell in love with the country. When I decided I wanted to do my History Masters, I knew I wanted to study the Khmer Rouge. As this is such a niche area of history, there were only a few courses which were able to offer the flexibility and academic support I knew I needed for my thesis idea. Warwick’s Masters by Research was perfect for what I wanted to do. After I’d graduated, it only made sense to return to the country I, by then, knew so much about. In fact, I now teach and run the outreach programme at the orphanage and school I volunteered at in 2009, Sovann Komar.

How does your time at Warwick help you in your career?
I live in a country which was ravaged by a terrible civil war barely 40 years ago. And the strange thing is that so few Cambodians know what happened to their ancestors. It’s not talked about, it’s not taught in schools, it’s not addressed within society as a whole. So as someone who has an intimate knowledge of exactly what the country has suffered, I think I am in a rather unique position to understand Cambodia’s current position within the world and the way in which Cambodians view their lives. Although I don’t teach the Khmer Rouge to my ten and eleven year old students, I use my knowledge every day when living in and experiencing this wonderful, scarred country.

What are the most challenging parts of your work?
My part time fundraising work is rewarding but tough. Two days a week I run my charity’s own charity. As a well-funded orphanage, Sovann Komar (which means Golden Children in Khmer) likes to give back to the local community and I am now responsible for organising all of their trips and fundraisers through my own mini-wing: Sovann Komar Outreach Program for Education (SKOPE). SKOPE aims to help rural schools throughout Cambodia by providing whatever they most need. From exercise books to toilet blocks, playground equipment to a new well, SKOPE tailors each project to a school’s individual needs. The fundraising is tough because so few people in Cambodia have a disposable income and those who do are often reluctant to part with their money. But it’s going really well overall and I’m excited to return to the rural schools I have visited and present the children with new education supplies.

What have you done that you are most proud of?
Setting up SKOPE on my own. I had the idea about a year ago and when I approached my boss he was really supportive. I am a one woman band when it comes to visiting schools, organising projects and setting up fundraising activities. It’s a lot of hard work but it is incredibly rewarding. We are about to purchase over one hundred motorbike helmets for a road safety campaign I have been particularly passionate about so I am very happy with that achievement.

What drives you?
My love for this country. Some might call it an obsession. There was even a Cambodian flag covering my wall at Lakeside when I lived there. I can’t help it: Cambodia is in my blood and has been for a long time. I’ve made so many connections over here now: the staff where I work, the students I teach, the fellow expats I meet. I believe what I am doing is helping people who most need SKOPE’s projects and I am grateful to be in a position where I can support some of the poorest areas of society.

What single thing would most improve the quality of your life?
The ability to speak, read and write Khmer fluently. OK, my speaking is pretty good now. The reading however? I’ve been trying for over a year but the Cambodian alphabet is the largest in the world and I’ve never been one for languages. I may be able to barter the price down some fruit and vegetables every evening but I still have to rely on translators when I go to the rural schools. This makes my work slower and means I have to ask someone else to accompany me and take time out of their busy schedules to do that. If I was able to read road signs/maps however, I could be much more independent with my outreach work.

What was your favourite aspect of the History MRes course?
I loved the freedom it gave me to study exactly what I was interested in. As a research degree, there was a lot of self-motivation involved but I never found this a problem because I was so fascinated with my thesis topic. I also got to spend a lot of time with PhD students and it was great to speak and socialise with other people who were just as passionate about history and research as I am.

What would you tell someone thinking of studying at Warwick?
Warwick is a fantastic university and I am so glad I got the chance to go there. I loved living on a campus and the social life which came with that was fantastic. I received endless support from my lecturers and supervisors and I couldn’t have asked for much more from a university.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently during your time as a student?
I regret not getting involved in any sports clubs. I swam in the sports centre most mornings but never considered joining the swim team which I think was a mistake. It would have been another way of making friends and motivated me to get out of bed on those cold winter mornings.

How do you balance work and life?
My days here are long. I’m out of the house from 8am until 6pm but I do have a three hour lunch break in between so I can’t complain too much. I try to leave work at work and for the most part, thanks to my long lunch break, I can. I often end up doing some of my outreach work for SKOPE at the weekends but visiting the schools and meeting the adorable children is always lots of fun so I don’t really consider it work. Other than that, I have a great social life here and make sure I spend time with my friends as often as I can.

If you could choose another profession, what would it be?
I’d love to work in television, researching for history programmes or documentaries. In fact, I think this is the career path I will pursue when I eventually leave Cambodia.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years’ time?
Somewhere I am happy, in a fulfilling job with the chance to continue my charity work.

What three objects would you take with you to a desert island?
Firstly, I did this with my Grade 5 kids the other week. Some of their answers included: a pillow, a spoon, and water.

  1. An iPhone with an everlasting battery (why does this not exist yet?)
  2. A penknife - because you never know when you’re going to have to cut something
  3. My mum (another University of Warwick Alumnus)

What are your favourite memories of your years at Warwick?
I made some incredible, life-long friends at Warwick and I cherish so many memories with them. From the girls’ weekly fika meetings to group nights out in Terrace Bar, dinners out in Leamington Spa and evening strolls around the beautiful campus, my year at Warwick will always hold a special place in my heart.

Do you have any advice for new graduates?
Travel. Broaden your horizons and see more of this incredible planet. Don’t take a job just because it pays well or it’s what your parents expect you to do. You’re only young once, take advantage of that and see the world.

FACT FILE

Age: 25

Lives: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Education: BA History and Sociology from Cardiff University. MRes History from University of Warwick

Career: English Teacher and Outreach Program Coordinator at Sovann Komar

Interests: Charity work, education, cycling, horse riding, living life to the fullest

Follow Ruth on Twitter

You can find some background on best practice and the practicalities of volunteering with children overseas here.