Beyond the Sites

“I truly thought we’d quietly sit the in back of a few classrooms and have lunch with the kids. I had no idea our visit would be the center of the entire day.”

Room to Read site visit (Cambodia 2020)

That’s how a recent Venture Travel participant described her day with Room to Read in Cambodia. I design Venture Travel to get us beyond traditional tourist sights and connect us with people, businesses and communities. Participants regularly cite the day with Room to Read as a week highlight. I’m not surprised—every time, it’s incredible.

And the only thing better than enjoying the experience is sharing it.

Over the years, I’ve introduced 30 people to the Room to Read site visit experiences in Cambodia, Laos, India, Tanzania and South Africa. It’s hard to explain what the day leaves you feeling—emotions range from joy, inspiration and gratitude to frustration over inequality and the randomness of life-based on where and when you were born. 

Room to Read site visit (Cambodia 2020)

Whether stepping through a school gate in Asia or Africa, you never forget the welcome. It’s colorful and loud—singing, chanting, clapping and smiles. There are handmade signs with your name painted on them. You are approached by a student and bow to have a necklace placed over your head or a bracelet on your wrist. You walk through a tunnel of uniformed children, teachers and staff. Each beaming face is there to welcome you. 

Initially, it makes me uncomfortable. All I can think of is the work put in by so many people to prepare for the day about to unfold. It feels too much.

Then I remind myself that the outpouring of gratitude is not solely for me or my fellow visitors. It’s a community’s way of thanking the entire global Room to Read family for supporting their belief in education. I begin to see myself as the vessel for their gratitude. I feel responsible for sharing it as widely as I can. And with that as my job, I reset and slowly walk through the tunnel of smiles, trying to lock eyes with every single face.

Room to Read site visit (Laos 2019)

For 20 years, Room to Read has sought to bridge inequality in education through their Literacy and Girls’ Education Programs. Most site visits provide a glimpse into both. For Literacy, we join a classroom of first or second-grade students and follow the teacher’s interactive grammar lesson using the “I do, we do, you do” method. For Girls’ Education, we spend time with girls between grades 7-12, participating in life skills classes led by a Room to Read social mobilizer and Friend-Help-Friend sessions facilitated by the girls themselves; sometimes we even make home visits.

On my most recent trip to Cambodia, my group of five—all women hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area—left Phnom Penh at the crack of dawn to travel to a secondary school in Kampong Cham province for a deep dive into Room to Read Girls’ Education Program. While our understanding of Room to Read and its programs varies, we are all investors—a Room to Read donation was part of registration.

We walk through the school gate down the pathway lined with smiling students with signs. I try my best to take photos for my fellow visitors so they can simply take it all in. We’re led to our special seats at a makeshift gathering space under the shade trees. Students sit attentively on mats as district, school and Room to Read leaders formally welcome us. There’s a student dance performance dedicated to the coconut tree for its importance in daily Khmer life.

We then split up and join life skills classes. In my class, the girls are led through a visioning exercise of themselves at university, then collectively brainstorm on everything a female student attending university in the city of Phnom Penh should prepare for. The session is led by Shun, a Room to Read social mobilizer. Nead, the head of Girls’ Education in Cambodia, sits next to me to translate. I notice she’s following a scripted lesson plan; it’s great to know this instruction can easily be shared and delivered by others.

Debate match (Cambodia 2020)

We regroup with students, staff and parents under the shade trees for the day’s big event—a debate. Two teams of three 12th grade Girls’ Education scholars argue the importance of teachers in an individual’s learning. Lee Ann from our group serves as one of the debate judges. I feel for the opposition team having to argue against this in front of their own teachers.

All six girls are amazing, standing confidently and speaking rapid Khmer into their handheld microphones to make their points within the strict time limits. A Room to Read staffer sits next to each visitor, striving to keep up a whispering of English translation. In a tough battle in which the entire school is engrossed, the opposition team scores a narrow victory! We meet the parents of one of the girls on the winning team and feel their pride. Music blares over the speakers in celebration. We dance our way back to our van and say our goodbyes.

Kate and Deb with Cambodian scholars (2020)

We head for lunch at a local restaurant and Room to Read leaders Vantha and Nead overview their Cambodia programs, specifically Girls’ Education. We discuss their commitment to partner with schools for a limited eight-year duration and how Cambodia is the first Room to Read country to pilot the expansion of life skills to boys. We break into discussions with Girls’ Education alumni; in my group were two women in their early 20’s, both teachers who were simultaneously also advancing their own education.

We then drive to a nearby pagoda and join primary school boys and girls for a Friend-Help-Friend session on personal hygiene facilitated by four Girls’ Education scholars. I learn the 10 steps of handwashing and make a new friend in one of the facilitators, a student who sweetly grabs my hand while we all play a game and never lets it go.

Jodi interacting in community training (2020)

Finally, we split into small groups for home visits. My visit was quite powerful. A 12th grade student who wants to be a math teacher leads us to her home to meet her mother, aunt and younger sister. She is the fourth oldest of five siblings; her parents live away most of the time to work in construction—a common economic reality in Cambodia’s rural areas. Her mom returned home specifically for our visit, but it’s clear that her staying in school is a day-to-day tension. Her aunt works in micro-finance; without children of her own, she’s clearly the force behind her five nieces and nephews continuing their education. Though the aunt is regularly present, our student host is the de-facto head of household for herself and a 9th grade sister when her parents are away. She leads us up the steep stairs to their living and sleeping area. We admire framed school awards hung on a wood pole as she tells us how she enjoys gathering fellow students in the space to study. Near her bed, I notice a table full of books and a whiteboard of algebra equations. A math major myself, I ask to take a photo with her in front of her whiteboard.

Home visit with Cambodian scholar (2020)

As we drive back to Phnom Penh, my group had much to talk about with the Room to Read team. The home visit made me quite emotional. Once again, I was inspired by the immediate ripple effect of women supporting and furthering women—whether in Africa or Asia, I see it in different forms, but it’s the same inspiration.

As the sun begins to set, our van passes construction zones described as “New Phnom Penh” and I look up at the buildings and cranes dotting the skyline. Education is the key to this country’s future; Room to Read is part of the foundation.

I don’t feel like a tourist in Cambodia. I feel forever invested in its future.


Join me in people-connected Venture Travel to Tanzania, Rwanda, Cambodia and Santa Fe, many of which include Room to Read site visits. Subscribe to my posts to receive notifications of upcoming trips.

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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!