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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
- Colin Meyn and Kounila Keo, Phnom Penh
- January 26, 2012
Royal Khmer University was a colonial establishment and the francophone model has remained at the kingdomâ€™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 universityâ€™s nine former faculties, the Ecole Normale SupĂ©rieure (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.
â€śSister Luise is the main source of social networks among professionals and academics in Cambodia,â€ť said Eng Sothy, 29-year-old Cambodian-born professor of the practice of comparative and international education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. â€śOnce youâ€™re logged into her world, you are connected.â€ť
Ahrens had little sway when she was sent to Cambodia as an educational aide by the Maryknoll Sisters in 1991.
â€śThey didnâ€™t know what to do with me,â€ť 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. â€śBut I had been doing [education development] in Indonesia for the previous 11 years,â€ť she said. â€śSo it wasnâ€™t like I was coming into it cold.â€ť
In one of her initial meetings with school officials, Ahrensâ€™ attention shifted to a stack of â€śvisiting cardsâ€ť on the vice rectorâ€™s desk.
â€śI donâ€™t know what to tell them,â€ť 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 Peopleâ€™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 couldnâ€™t even receive handouts.
Ahrens set about responding to state aid agencies, education donors and academic institutions around the world, channeling funds through Maryknollâ€™s bank account in the country. â€śI was writing on an old typewriter on a table at the rectors office that they probably still have,â€ť she said, â€śbecause you canâ€™t get rid of anything in this government.â€ť
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 â€ścrappyâ€ť universities, namely the for-profit higher-education institutions that have popped up around the country in recent years, to continue operating without oversight.
â€śRegional integration is going to kill these young Cambodians who think theyâ€™re going to compete with a Korean for a job,â€ť Ahrens said. â€śNot on their life. Thatâ€™s going to be a terrible blow for Cambodians.â€ť
Whatever the governmentâ€™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 Cambodiaâ€™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 Cambodiaâ€™s tertiary education institutions, said Ahrens is â€śthe first person we go to when we want to know what is going on in higher education.â€ť
â€śThe essence of moving ahead with a university is collaboration and networking,â€ť said Ahrens. Â â€śIf we donâ€™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 theyâ€™ll keep doing the work."