Teaching Across Borders

Writing instructor Debra Carney travels to Cambodia to share her love of teaching

by Elise Gibson

Debra Carney and her class of Cambodian teachers.Every January for the past five years, Smith writing instructor Debra Carney boards a plane in Boston for a 30-hour journey to Cambodia, a country perhaps best known to Americans as the site of US bombings and a brutal insurgency that killed millions of people, virtually destroying its economic, social, and cultural life.

In Phnom Penh, Carney is greeted by heat, chaos, and dust-choked air in this rapidly modernizing city. Within a day she will be standing in front of a classroom of university teachers, sharing her knowledge of learning theory and  modern approaches to teaching writing.

Carney describes the Cambodia of today as “intoxicating and compelling” and says her monthlong teaching sojourns there—funded this year by the Fulbright program and in past years by Smith and the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching, and Learning—have become an important part of her life.

Carney’s road to Cambodia began with a sightseeing trip to neighboring Vietnam in 1994. A guide informed her that Cambodia, even years after the end of the Vietnam War, remained unsafe to visit. “I was struck that this country was still going through the effects of war,” she said. “Cambodia just became a fascination to me.”

When she returned home, she began tutoring Cambodians living near Smith, including Oeuy Lip, a campus custodian. Carney began looking for ways to work in Cambodia, to be a part of mending a country broken by war.

Carney, a writing specialist at the Jacobson Center, put together a proposal to teach mini-courses for Cambodian faculty at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in several areas, including techniques for teaching writing, public speaking, and critical-thinking skills. “Very few university teachers there have graduate degrees,” she explained. Part of her mission has been to prepare teachers and social workers to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) examination so that they can apply to graduate school in the United States or elsewhere. She also designed a curriculum for teaching writing at Social Services of Cambodia, an agency charged with responding to the immense social and mental health problems brought on both by the devastation of war and, in recent years, rapid modernization.

Starting in 2004, the college has given Carney a leave during January interterm and funded her airfare and living expenses in Phnom Penh. The first year, as her long journey began, she was nervous about all the unknowns she was facing. “I lost my fear of flying that year because I was so afraid of my destination,” she says with a laugh.

Over the years, she’s gained many friends in Phnom Penh, among them Sister Dr. Luise Ahrens, a Maryknoll nun whom she credits with connecting her to the university in the first place. Ahrens and Layheng Ting, one of Carney’s former students who is now studying at SUNY-Albany, recommended Carney to a post at the National Institute of Education, which is Cambodia’s training center for teachers. The NIE hired Carney via the US state department’s Fulbright program, making her the first American to receive a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to the NIE. She spent January bringing her students’ teaching methods up to date and working to improve their writing skills. “Part of my role is to model professionalism and enthusiasm. I love to teach,” she said.

Carney’s work in Cambodia springs directly from witnessing the tragically longlasting effects of war. “I think it’s important to travel to places where your country has touched people’s lives,” she said, “to look at what your nation’s policies have done and try to do something to repair it.”

Spring ’09 SAQ