In a remarkable tale of resilience and transformation, two young Cambodian women from an impoverished neighbourhood of Phnom Penh, Bun Malita, 18, and Len Leang, 20, have secured scholarships to one of Australia’s most prestigious higher education institutions.
Hailing from Stung Meanchey on the outskirts of the capital, their journeys exemplify the profound impact of education and stand as a testament to the collaborative efforts of the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) – and NGO founded by former Hollywood executive Scott Neeson – and Trinity College, which prepares international students for entry into the University of Melbourne.
Malita and Leang are among nine CCF students who have earned full scholarships to study in Australia. Of the other seven, three have graduated from the University of Melbourne, two are currently studying there and two will start their degree programme soon, according to the CCF.
“The scholarship is a game-changer for these students. We’re proud of their achievements,” said Neeson, the CCF founder and executive director.
CCF provides hope for almost 1,800 disadvantaged children annually. The Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA), an initiative of the NGO, provides quality education and an opportunity for international scholarships post-Grade 12.
Since 2017, Trinity College has partnered with CCF to provide scholarships for their Foundation Year programme.
In 2023, Malita and Leang were selected due to their exceptional abilities and dedication. The duo joined Trinity’s July intake.
The bitter story of Malita
Leang, a resident of Prey Veng province, comes from a family that works diligently to support her and her four sisters. Upon moving to Stung Meanchey, they were introduced to Neeson, who extended an invitation to attend his NGO-affiliated school.
Malita, in contrast, has faced immense adversity. She and her mother were victims of an acid attack when Malita was only two years old. This horrific incident left her mother with visual impairment and inflicted physical scars on both of them.
“I don’t have a clear memory of the incident, but my mother told me that my constant crying might have saved my eyesight,” Malita tells The Post.
While in Phnom Penh, familial ties grew strained. Malita’s father distanced himself from his wife and daughter, providing only financial assistance and isolated them from the rest of the family.
Malita and her mother, wary of societal scrutiny, led a reclusive life in a house provided by her father. Their circumstances took a turn when Neeson intervened, facilitating not only Malita’s school enrolment but also aiding her visually impaired mother in securing employment.
“Life with a disabled mother is difficult,” Malita acknowledges.
“Yet, she has always been there for me, managing to cook and even occasionally getting help from neighbours for grocery shopping. Being far from her for my studies is emotionally challenging, but knowing that my siblings visit her offers some comfort,” adds Malita.
Upon their arrival in Australia, Malita initially encountered challenges adapting to the colder climate. Following a brief adjustment period, Malita, Leang and their fellow students embarked on a school tour. Subsequently, they commenced their foundational year to prepare for university as certain subjects were not part of their previous education in Cambodia.
“I’m currently pursuing a BA in media. My goal is to score at least 80 points to meet the qualification requirements,” says Malita.
With a solid foundation in English acquired at the NCA, she displayed confidence in her language skills, even when studying alongside students who were not as proficient in English.
Conversely, Len Leang, voiced apprehensions about her English language skills, leading her to allocate extra time for language studies.
Additionally, to pursue her college education beyond the foundation year, Malita must concentrate on media-related subjects to attain the necessary 80-point threshold.
According to Kate Elix, director of marketing, communications and events at Trinity College, both students are adapting well, academically and socially.
“They’ve settled in and made friends, and we’re optimistic about their first reports,” Elix says.
Neither young woman is a stranger to hardship. Malita, in particular, has triumphed over a tragic family background.
“Life has been hard, but we’ve always persevered,” Malita says.
Both students recall the rigorous scholarship exam for Trinity College, acknowledging the tough competition.
“Balancing the scholarship exam with my 12-grade studies was a challenge. I had to prepare for both high school graduation and the opportunity to study abroad, although I prioritised my 12th-grade exams,” Malita explains.
Leang observed that the majority of other candidates excelled in English, which dented her confidence, particularly because she had faced disappointment in a previous Australian college exam.
Since 2017, their dreams were kindled by seniors who had pursued Australian education through the Trinity College Scholarship. Despite financial limitations, both students worked hard to seize this opportunity.
“Regardless of the outcome, we gave it our best to gauge our potential,” Malita adds.
Paving their future
As Malita and Leang embark on their paths, they acknowledge the uncertainties and hurdles that lie ahead. Malita aspires to join Cambodia’s growing film industry as a filmmaker.
On the other hand, Leang initially pursued a career in commerce, with dreams of entering management and eventually owning a business. However, confronted by the language demands of her chosen field, she pivoted her focus to media studies.
“My future isn’t set in stone, but I’m excited to explore the possibilities,” she muses.
The stories of Malita and Leang demonstrate the transformative power of education As they pursue their dreams, their journey from underprivileged communities in Stung Meanchey to the esteemed corridors of the University of Melbourne stands as an inspiring tale of resilience and achievement.