International student Thida Kim ’21 is giving back to her country by mentoring teens and children as a virtual intern with Caring for Cambodia.
When May 2020 arrived, Thida Kim ’21 realized that going back to her home in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to begin the internship she’d planned would not be possible. COVID-19 cases were rising and travel restrictions were enacted around the world. She felt it was simply too risky to leave the U.S. So, Kim, a double major in human service studies and project management, became Caring for Cambodia’s first virtual intern.
Caring for Cambodia (CFC) operates schools educating around 7,000 students and provides teacher training. Its mission is personal for Kim. Working with CFC, she’s giving back to a community that supported her when she was in high school, a time when she was ambitious but unsure about her future.
“Caring For Cambodia’s students are from rural areas, like me,” Kim said. “I didn’t have many role models, and school taught me about being a social worker, an astronaut, a scientist. In my community, people didn’t have those kinds of jobs.”
An Odyssey Scholar and a Business Fellow, Kim became the first member of her family to come to the United States, as well as the first one to attend college. An older student from her high school told her about Elon, and Kim liked its size and location. Coming from a small school in rural Cambodia, she knew a leap to a big university in a new country wouldn’t work for her. Elon was the perfect fit, and Kim has thrived here.
Her summer work with CFC was two-pronged. Kim helped the career preparation team guide high school students through skills like teamwork building and preparing college applications. She also worked with the English as a Second Language team, designing classes to teach younger children basic language skills. Her cultural understanding helped her tailor exercises specifically for a Cambodian audience. For example, she knew to incorporate Cambodian fruits in the children’s lesson plans, rather than strawberries, which are foreign to them.
Kim is continuing to intern virtually for CFC through the fall semester, using the position to satisfy the required internship block for both of her majors. But this fall her work is more interactive, using online video conferencing to practice English with the younger students and to provide one-on-one mentorship for high school seniors. The 11-hour time difference means Kim has to stay up late, but it’s worth it.
“It feels so good to be supported, and when I was their age, I was really grateful for the people who helped me,” she said. “I’m a first-generation college student, and when I couldn’t turn to my family, I was glad that there was someone at school who could help and make sure I know what I’m doing.”
She’s in touch with her family often, and they’ve been checking in on one another through the pandemic. Her family and friends back home worry about her, but she reminds them that she’s in a small community, not a big city, and she’s feeling safe. Her extended family is large, scattered throughout the same village, and when she calls, she laughs that half the village participates. Seeing her growing eight-month-old nephew is always a highlight for her.
Kim has a few weeks of her CFC internship remaining, and after working closely with the students, she sees more and more of herself in them. The elementary school students began studying English at ten years old, which was when Kim began. Their language skills are still quite formal, and as time has passed, they’re becoming more comfortable with her. Kim recalls that stage in her life fondly.
“I had English midday, and my teacher would bring food to class. A lot of us were malnourished, and that was my only sweet thing of the day,” Kim said. “She let me bring books home, which was absolutely life changing. I was one of the fastest learners because I read so much. Pippi Longstocking was my favorite, and I’d always dress up like her for any school events.”
In addition to the CFC internship, Kim is wrapping up her time at Elon with a very full plate. She recently received a John Belk Impact Fellowship, with a placement in the College Advising Corps. That work – program management and budget analysis – ties to her project management major, and she is enjoying honing those skills professionally.
In the spring she will work with the Division of Student Life as an Elon Executive Intern. Kim is co-president of the Asian-Pacific Student Association, which works to raise awareness of the Asian community at Elon. Through her executive internship, Kim hopes to connect with the university’s senior staff and make sure that the Asian student community is heard.
Once she graduates in 2021, Kim plans to work in human service studies. She wants to pursue a master’s degree after a few years of hands-on experience in the field. Ultimately she envisions herself as a social worker in Cambodia, where she can bring all that she’s learned in the U.S. back to the country where education changed her life.