Conservation, Culture, Community: The School for Field Studies in Cambodia

By Karyn Simpson
Medill Reports

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – If you turn left off the main road going west out of Siem Reap, Cambodia, you’ll find yourself on a sandy path not quite wide enough for two tuk-tuks.

You’ll bounce along the uneven road as the rush of city traffic abruptly gives way to the gentle hubbub of everyday community life. Take a right, then a left on unmarked dirt roads, past the dog with the orange fur and the second family selling clothing – everything from jeans to formal dresses – and you’ll find a tall metal gate, green paint chipping in the hot sun. This is the entrance to the School for Field Studies, an international study abroad program that not only immerses students into Cambodian culture, but also gives them first-hand experience in performing community-relevant research.

School For Field StudiesThe School for Field Studies has 10 locations across the globe, each open to undergraduate students studying science- or environment-related degrees. The programs each focus on a different aspect of environmental research, from wildlife management to rain forest studies to conservation and development, the Cambodia center’s specialty.

“We here are in an environment of rapid development, and we explore some of the nuances between enabling effective conservation in a cultural context of rapid development and rapid change,” said Cambodia Center Director Georgina Lloyd Rivera, Ph.D. “And also exploring how this relates to a post-conflict society as well.”

School for Field Studies

Each of the School for Field Studies (SFS) centers are highly invested in the local communities, Lloyd Rivera said, and in teaching each semester’s students the importance of performing informed research that can produce tangible results in the communities in which the research is based.

School for Field StudiesAbove, Center Director Georgina Lloyd Rivera talks with 12 students at SFS Cambodia this semester. They attend classes six days a week and travel frequently as a group, exploring environmental issues across the country and learning how to apply the concepts they are taught in the classroom. The students come from universities across the United States – from The University of Iowa to Brown University and beyond.

School for Field StudiesThe semester culminates in a month-long “directed research” project where students tackle environmental research topics based on past research and current community needs.

“We partner with existing organizations that are already doing work in Cambodia that have needs for research,” said SFS intern Ella Dorval Hall. “And so, School for Field Studies is able to fill those needs by partnering with those organizations and providing research in those areas.”

The students’ work is facilitated by the center faculty. This semester, their projects range from looking at how dogs are perceived in community culture to studying how noise pollution from Khmer New Year affects the local bat populations.

School for Field Studies“One of the pillars of SFS is community, the way that we work with community,” Lloyd Rivera said.

She defines community as the sum of all the stakeholders – groups such as the Cambodian government, the Ministry of the Environment, non-governmental organizations, private sector organizations and more – relationships that the SFS Cambodia faculty have carefully cultivated since the center’s opening in 2014. The research done by students at the end of the program is then given back to the relevant Cambodian organizations or community leaders in order to inform and effect future change.

School for Field Studies“We do ensure that we have some meaningful collaborations in the research that we do,” Lloyd Rivera said. “It’s not research for research’s sake. It’s research that can support our partners’ work to improve conservation outcomes.”

School for Field Studies

SFS doesn’t just support conservation and sustainability in Cambodia through their research, though. The center on the red sand road weaves environmental sustainability into every aspect of their students’ daily lives. Paper towels are nowhere to be found at SFS Cambodia, food waste is composted and all laundry is line-dried over the garden.

School for Field Studies

Some of the vegetables that make up each meal come from that garden, and the bamboo and lemongrass that grow around the property are used in various recipes.

School for Field Studies

The center’s mango trees also provide some of the fruit with each meal — though not the tree outside her office window, Lloyd Rivera made sure to note.

“The mango trees on that side are delicious!” Lloyd Rivera said, laughing and gesturing to the other side of the property. “This mango tree is a bit of a dud.”

School for Field Studies

The center’s chickens provide some of the eggs students eat for breakfast. Students also spend time at the beginning of each semester developing their own sustainability goals, which can range from taking shorter showers to using the air conditioning less – a feat that takes a conscious effort in the sweltering Cambodia heat.

School for Field Studies

In addition, Dorval Hall, the center’s resident intern, is working on developing a solar energy proposal for the center, which would help reduce the center’s environmental footprint.

“We are hoping to have a solar ray installed here that will work off the grid, so it will not tie into the grid, and the energy that is produced will be consumed directly on site,” Dorval Hall said. “One of the cornerstones of the School for Field Studies is it’s an environmental research program, and part of that is stewardship of the earth. Reducing our environmental impact aligns with our missions in the environmental field.”

These solar panels are something that SFS is hoping to add to all its locations in order to contribute to its mission of environmental stewardship and sustainability.

School for Field Studies

Solar panels could also help in the citywide power outages that hit Siem Reap on occasion. Power outages mean no Wi-Fi and a break from schoolwork until the power returns, but these outages also mean no air conditioning. During these times, the students either flock to cafes that have generators or congregate in the pool or on the lawn to play games. A solar panel system could help keep the air conditioning – and the Wi-Fi – on in these scenarios.

School for Field Studies

SFS does its best to fully immerse students in environmental research and Cambodian culture for the semester they are here. Students learn Cambodian words and customs, such as taking off their shoes before entering any building. During the semester, they travel across Cambodia, exploring everything from natural resource conservation in rural societies to waste management in their home community in Siem Reap. What they learn in lectures is manifested in what they see and do every day, said John Dzurec (pictured), a junior from Miami University studying supply chain management and sustainability.

“It’s not just another college in another country,” Dzurec said. “Every day you’re getting to see what the community is doing, what is going on around Siem Reap and in Cambodia, which I think is really important for this part of education.”

Photo portfolio by Karyn Simpson/Medill. Photo at top: The road outside the School for Field Studies winds through one of the many local neighborhoods. (Karyn Simpson/MEDILL)