An Interview with Professor Mertha about Study Abroad and Cornell-in-Cambodia

Professor Andrew Mertha leads an intensive two-week program in Cambodia as part of his course “Chinese Empire and the Cambodian Experience.” Focusing on China’s relations with Cambodia from the 12th century up to the present, this course enables students to experience first-hand much of what they have learned in the classroom while visiting Cambodia.
Cornell-in-Cambodia students in front of Siem Reap

Why did you develop Cornell in Cambodia?

Let me explain by telling you a story.  Seven years ago, I stumbled upon an airfield built on slave laborers mobilized by the murderous Khmer Rouge, and managed by Chinese advisors.  It was in central Cambodia – in the middle of nowhere – a rare and extremely striking relic of Chinese foreign aid to the Khmer Rouge.

Every year, we visit this sight with students. In 2015, a good friend of mine and an expert on the Khmer Rouge co-taught that session. While standing on the tarmac, he mentioned the date when construction on this airfield started. I immediately interrupted. All my sources pointed to construction starting not in 1977, but in 1976. As the two of us were arguing our points fairly vociferously in front of the students, my TA stepped in. While my friend and I were in agreement that Khmer soldiers had built the airfield, the sources she had spoken with clearly indicated that the villagers near the airfield had also been forced to build it.

As our students listened to the volley of disagreements, they saw first-hand how sometimes even the very facts upon which our knowledge is based are slippery concepts.

Exposure to this type of academic engagement makes you realize how complex and contested even the simplest accepted reality can be. The opportunity to do on-the-ground research and appreciate such complexity is an essential part of being abroad.

Andrew Mertha, Professor of Government at Cornell University on a trip to Cambodia
"Study abroad is for everyone. One of my very best students had never been out of the country before going to Cambodia."

What do you want students who are thinking about study abroad to know?

Students at Cornell work hard! At times, the pressure to get high marks and get the best internship leaves many students unaware of the opportunities beyond campus. Study abroad socializes students out of this Cornell bubble. This is liberating – the best feeling in the world. By taking a small risk they learn that the boxes in their mental checklists don't have to be set in stone. There is no one formula for success. Abroad, they gain a better understanding of themselves, who they want to be, and what they are truly capable of than you ever will at home.

Do you think that study abroad is more important for some students than others at Cornell?

Absolutely NOT! Study abroad is for everyone. One of my very best students had never been out of the country before going to Cambodia. Now after graduating in May, she is back in Cambodia working as my research assistant seeking out ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers at the Siem Reap War Museum. Her experience with Cornell in Cambodia encouraged her to seek out many other opportunities including a semester at University College London where she studied both the European Union and Gender and Politics. Back at Cornell, she was the first undergraduate student accepted into the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic where she provided over 90 hours of legal services. I know that her experiences abroad have deeply shaped her skill set and given her a clearer understanding of her future goals.

"Over and over again, I have seen how experiences abroad make seemingly impossible opportunities become a natural next step in life."

We often hear students don’t study abroad because they worry it will interfere with career opportunities. What is your opinion on this?

I cannot emphasize enough how many doors are opened after study abroad. Over and over again, I have seen how experiences abroad make seemingly impossible opportunities become a natural next step in life. Let me give you two examples:

I had an international student originally from China participate in Cornell in Cambodia during her freshman year. After this, she went back to Cambodia to intern at our partner institution and now she is doing an internship at the Carter Center.

Another student who was a CAPS (Cornell Asia-Pacific Studies) and Near Eastern Studies double major who studied both Chinese and Arabic. She went on to study in Jordan for a year after her time in Cambodia.

"You don’t need ten years of experience to be able to converse and connect in a foreign language. Just sitting down and engaging with someone in their language, even if you can only exchange a few words, can create a truly life-affirming connection."

Having grown up bilingual, how important do you think foreign language study abroad opportunities are?

That’s a great question. Studying abroad in a non-English speaking country is a great opportunity to gain anywhere between proficiency to fluency in another language. You’d be amazed at how much even a basic understanding of another language can affect how you connect with locals.

You don’t need ten years of experience to be able to converse and connect in a foreign language. Just sitting down and engaging with someone in their language, even if you can only exchange a few words, can create a truly life-affirming connection.

That’s the beauty of study abroad. You move from being someone with only the faintest understanding of the complexities of a place and you are brought into the bosom of a rich, diverse, complex culture. With even the most minor language skills, study abroad opens your eyes up to a whole new world.

Cornell-in-Cambodia students digging into the archives

Interesting. We had very similar results from our recent study abroad survey.

CUAbroad: Of those students whose program had a language component, 90% said that their time abroad improved their language skills. Of those, 50% reported significant improvement. Most of these were beginner to intermediate students.

Professor Mertha: Yes! It’s exactly those intermediate or even beginner-level language students that benefit the most from study abroad.

For my own students, taking a one-credit Khmer course before going abroad allows them to communicate with locals while abroad, while making it much more likely that they would to continue taking Khmer or other language courses when they return to Ithaca.

That’s the beauty of study abroad. You move from being someone with only the faintest understanding of the complexities of a place and you are brought into the bosom of a rich, diverse, complex culture. With even the most minor language skills, study abroad opens your eyes up to a whole new world.

What you’re saying, reflects in recent research as well.

A recent study done by the University of Minnesota found that study abroad had a greater impact (83.5%) on the lives of 6,391 alumni than friendships (73.8%) and U.S. based- internships (21.1%) or fraternities/sororities (8.9%). Do you think, your students would have similar responses to this survey?

This makes perfect sense to me. Study abroad teaches you to embrace and love challenges. When students are book learning, they are at best only taken half-way to understanding the topic at hand. They haven't yet made this learning their own. They haven’t lived it. Not yet.  Moreover, when they are in the field, these challenges – qualitatively and quantitatively as great as any they will encounter on campus – are, at the same time, so much fun that it doesn’t even feel like a challenge. Students only realize their achievements afterward!

Study abroad is the greatest pedagogical experience I have ever had. Period.  And that’s not hyperbole.