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Resourceful Maryknoll Sister helps students

Sister is 'the one who knows what's happpening'

Sr Ahrens talks with students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh Sr Ahrens talks with students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh
  • Colin Meyn and Kounila Keo, Phnom Penh
  • Cambodia
  • January 26, 2012
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Since its inception in 1960, the Royal University of Phnom Penh has undergone five name changes, occupied three distinct spheres of influence and was shuttered for more than four year after its intellectual lifeblood was drained, and many of its professors killed, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge

Royal Khmer University was a colonial establishment and the francophone model has remained at the kingdom’s oldest institute for higher learning. The Soviet era, which lasted for less than a decade beginning in 1980, was defined by a stripped-down curriculum and the reopening of only one of the university’s nine former faculties, the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Higher Normal College), offering intensive training in Russian and Vietnamese language and a crash course in teaching to fill the void of capable educators in the country.

The third era has seen a systemic shift, with the liberated Royal University of Phnom Penh pulling in resources and partners from around the globe. At the centre of this shift is a 73-year-old Detroit-born Catholic Sister named Luise Ahrens.

“Sister Luise is the main source of social networks among professionals and academics in Cambodia,” said Eng Sothy, 29-year-old Cambodian-born professor of the practice of comparative and international education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “Once you’re logged into her world, you are connected.”

Ahrens had little sway when she was sent to Cambodia as an educational aide by the Maryknoll Sisters in 1991.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” she said of the Soviet-schooled administration running RUPP at the time.

With a PhD in English literature from Fordham University in New York and an impatient idealism fortified as a university student in 1960s America, Ahrens said the caginess of her Cambodian colleagues was predictable. “But I had been doing [education development] in Indonesia for the previous 11 years,” she said. “So it wasn’t like I was coming into it cold.”

In one of her initial meetings with school officials, Ahrens’ attention shifted to a stack of “visiting cards” on the vice rector’s desk.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” the vice rector said, referring to the donors, academics and other interested parties whose contact information was piled before him. The foreign trade bank was the only financial institution under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which remained the de facto government until democratic elections in 1993, and had little international capacity. Despite its desperate situation, the school couldn’t even receive handouts.

Ahrens set about responding to state aid agencies, education donors and academic institutions around the world, channeling funds through Maryknoll’s bank account in the country. “I was writing on an old typewriter on a table at the rectors office that they probably still have,” she said, “because you can’t get rid of anything in this government.”

Many of the young, Western-educated administrators, who over time have shifted their position on the importance of foreign funds and influence at RUPP, still occupy the same chairs they were hastily seated in more than two decades ago.

As perhaps its most prolific collaborator on matters of education, Ahrens says the Ministry of Education is finally coming to terms with the disastrous consequences of allowing “crappy” universities, namely the for-profit higher-education institutions that have popped up around the country in recent years, to continue operating without oversight.

“Regional integration is going to kill these young Cambodians who think they’re going to compete with a Korean for a job,” Ahrens said. “Not on their life. That’s going to be a terrible blow for Cambodians.”

Whatever the government’s shortcomings, Ahrens has worked relentlessly to make up for them in her work at RUPP, and through countless collaborations outside the state system.

She pioneered the English Support Centre at RUPP, which helps scholarship students catch up to, and compete with, their peers. She was a central figure in the formation of the career counseling centre and academic advising office at the institution and is an advising board member for the masters of education program, the preeminent institution for educators in the kingdom.

She is also the founding chair of EDUCAM, an educational forum comprising many of the key players in Cambodia’s academic circles. She is a member at large of the Cambodian Cooperation Committee, an organisation with member NGOs representing the full spectrum of non-profit work in Cambodia.

An education expert at the World Bank, which has invested more than US$24 million in recent years to establish accountability among Cambodia’s tertiary education institutions, said Ahrens is “the first person we go to when we want to know what is going on in higher education.”

“The essence of moving ahead with a university is collaboration and networking,” said Ahrens.  “If we don’t have that, Cambodia is doomed to staying the way we are. There will be no progress in terms of research and development. But now, its Cambodians taking the lead; I just have to keep getting people here for them to talk to and they’ll keep doing the work."
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