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Reason, Religion, and Loving-Kindness: Salesian Education in Cambodia

By: Nathaniel Adams

October 21, 2011

by Nathaniel Adams (2010-11 WFDD Fellow)

As I looked out over the pristine, turquoise pool rippled by a lazy sea breeze, I had an intense urge to settle into one of the nearby lounge chairs for the day, umbrella-crowned cocktail in hand. Unfortunately for me, this was an urge that I was forced to repress, I was here to work after all. I was sitting in the dining room of the Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville, Cambodia with several enthusiastic, young waiters hovering over me, each with wide smiles and an impressive repertoire of courteous expressions. These young men are taking part in a two-year program to earn their Associate’s Degrees in food and beverage services, one of many tracks available to students at the Hotel School, which range from culinary arts to housekeeping. A short stroll from the Hotel School’s serene environs within Don Bosco’s Sihanoukville complex things get decidedly more industrial, illustrating the impressive breadth of skills taught at the center. As we wandered about peering into some of the cavernous structures, sparks flew from welding torches and dark smoke poured out of malfunctioning engines. In one of the classrooms students in grease-smeared coveralls discussed complex electrical diagrams, in another an air-conditioning unit laid disassembled on the floor like an impossible jigsaw puzzle. In all, there are six main sections at the school: Mechanical, Electrical, Auto Mechanic, Social Communication, Computer-Secretarial and Hotel Management, each with multiple sub-tracks to follow. The Salesians of Don Bosco operate many similar schools around the world, providing professional training to youth who are orphaned or from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Cambodia, apart from its facilities in Sihanoukville, Don Bosco operates five vocational centers in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Poipet, Kep, and provides courses in a number of the country’s prisons.
The Society of Saint Francis de Sales, commonly known as the Salesians of Don Bosco, is a group founded in 1859 by Giovanni Bosco, a priest and educator in Northern Italy. Born to a family of farmhands, he faced many barriers to education as a youth before an elderly priest encouraged and supported him to continue his schooling. After becoming a religious man himself, Don Bosco dedicated his life to serving youth in similar predicaments, working to provide educational opportunities to orphans and street children during the early years of the industrial revolution. Don Bosco devised and championed what he termed the “preventive system” of education, a holistic educational philosophy centered on utilizing loving-kindness to steer youth in the right direction. In his system the teacher is first and foremost a friend to the pupil, helping to inspire personal growth alongside academic success. He believed the system would prevent the need for the harsh and alienating disciplinary tactics that were common in the day. In recognition of his lifetime of selfless work, Don Bosco was canonized in 1934.

Several Salesians in Cambodia are working to carry on the legacy of Don Bosco. During our time in Sihanoukville we met with Father Albiero, a Salesian from Colombia. Father Albiero was initially intent on working in Siberia before being convinced by a high-ranking Salesian in Italy to come to Cambodia. Soon afterwards, in 1999, he found himself on a plane headed to the small, war-torn Southeast Asian nation. As he told us, “I could just speak Spanish at that time, they sent me from Milan to Bangkok alone with only a University of Chicago Spanish to English dictionary. I remember the flight attendants asked me what I would like to drink; I couldn’t even answer!” Having studied journalism in his native Colombia, Father Albiero saw a unique opportunity to not only share marketable skills with disadvantaged youth, but also to contribute to the revival of a strong and vibrant, local media in the country: “I thought that building local capacity in social communication could really help the country. I saw all the problems in Cambodia, but in the media these problems were always being portrayed by foreigners and never by Cambodians themselves. I thought, we need to let Cambodians speak about themselves.” In 2006, Father Albiero established the Social Communication section at Don Bosco Sihanoukville. The program includes tracks for web and graphic design, audio-video production and editing, and journalism. Father Albiero beamed like a proud father as he showed us around the facilities, which were outfitted with computer rooms, sound-proof recording booths, and even a television studio, where a group of young men in blue dress shirts and ties waited patiently for class to begin. As we soon realized, we were delaying the day’s lesson. Father Albiero had each student introduce themselves and after a bit of prodding, one graciously agreed to sit down with us briefly to share his story.

Bu Tut is a 21 year-old student in Social Communication, who was encouraged to apply to Don Bosco by a friend in his home province of Kep. He lost his father several years ago, and his mother is old and struggles to manage the family’s farmland and take care of his mentally disabled sister. Growing up he didn’t even have regular electricity, let alone access to a computer, and he confesses he was pretty unfamiliar with the technology when he first arrived at the school: “At first everyone laughed at me because I didn’t even know how to turn on the computer. Now sometimes they are asking me for advice!” Don Bosco schools place a great emphasis on teaching useful technical skills and learning by doing. The hope is that with these skills, Bu Tut and students like him can find well-paying employment and break the cycle of poverty. As Father Albiero points out, “We try to make sure that the courses are answering a real need in Cambodia. For example, we’ve started an industrial mechanic course, and these skills are not well known in Cambodia.”

Over their 20 years in the country, Don Bosco has established linkages with many companies through their past pupils. The Cambodian government even encourages foreign companies that establish a presence in the kingdom to source new employees from Don Bosco. The model has been successful, such that applications to Don Bosco schools increase annually and schools struggle to meet the demand. As Father Albiero mentioned in our discussion, “The selection process can be very difficult; we now have more than 1,000 students applying for around 250 positions [in Sihanoukville].” In order to accommodate more students, particularly those from impoverished areas of Kep and Takeo provinces, Don Bosco recently opened a new facility in Kep with the assistance of donors from Holland. Visitors to the Hotel School in Sihanoukville also help to fund and expand Don Bosco initiatives in Cambodia and with pleasant rooms, attentive service, and a mean gelato it does make for an appealing destination.