New Year’s Message 2024

Every single day, we support dozens of Cambodian students and families in managing their daily lives, mentor them through important decisions, and work hard to provide them with all the resources that they need to build a promising future for themselves. It is truly a blessing to work for so many ambitious young adults and teenagers and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. That being said, it can also get very hectic and overwhelming at times to be directly involved in so many individuals’ lives and their life choices. When you’re a part of so many different storylines, things are constantly moving at a fast pace and we barely get a minute to reflect on everything we have achieved along the way – that is until New Year’s Eve comes around.

New Year’s is generally known to be THE time of the year to process how the past year went, celebrate one’s achievements, and think about which resolutions to set for the upcoming year. And even though I am not the kind of person who gets sentimental at the end of each year in my personal life, working on this NGO’s 2023 annual report literally forces me to reevaluate every single project that we worked on in the past year.

2023 was a truly special year for Thomlang – Cambodian Youth Support. It was our third year in action and we continued to grow in every way possible. In the fall, we officially surpassed 200.000 USD in donations raised since our inception. Through our work, we have now reached more than 500 people in need. Through social media, our cause has reached more people than ever before and we are truly overwhelmed by all the love and support that we received from all over the world. People from Australia, Singapore, France, all the way to the US West Coast resonated with our students’ stories and felt inspired to become part of their journeys through encouraging messages and donations.

2023 was a year of new beginnings and also of first university graduations. We were able to enroll five new students in university: Yean started Law School, Phanit registered for an English-speaking track in International Business, Voeng enrolled in Electrical Engineering, Chamreoun in Mechanical Engineering, and, last but not least, Kimhouy chose Management as her major.

At the same time, we were able to celebrate the fact that five of our students finished their Bachelor’s programs last year and were officially rewarded with their degrees, which will help them find high-paying jobs in the Cambodian job market. Other students, like Srey Pit and Dina, completed trade school and received official diplomas.

A major personal highlight was, as usual, my 2-month trip to Cambodia in the fall. Even though our students and I are constantly in contact through our phones, nothing compares to spending time together in person. Whenever I’m in Cambodia, I check in on all of our students and hold meetings to talk about their progress in school, their living situations, their career goals, and their resolutions for the following year. These one-on-one conversations are truly important and it is in those moments, that they can let their guards down, confide in me, and talk about their mental health, which is also crucial for their personal development.

However, I don’t only meet our students to talk about project-related matters. I also like to treat them to some fun activities whenever I visit them. All of them come from rural parts of Cambodia and grew up in extreme poverty, which is why living in the capital Phnom Penh is still very new to them. This is the first time that they are confronted with lots of traffic, expats, skyscrapers, modern buildings, and shopping malls. Even though they cannot afford to engage in this kind of lifestyle, they finally get a form of exposure to new things that they have never seen before. A first for all of us was a newly opened district on Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island, Koh Pich, that is supposed to emulate the feeling of walking through a French town. It is a huge construction project that is still empty for most parts but offers a great backdrop for beautiful photos of our students. Small food stands and a flea market attract many Cambodians on the weekends, turning it into a great location for a get-together to share some fruit and drink some iced coffee.

In last year’s blog post, I already mentioned that movie theatres had opened up for the first time in 2022. This year, I held a couple of movie nights again. Some students had already had the pleasure of experiencing movie theaters with me before, while others experienced the big screen and the Dolby surround sound for the very first time.

A definite highlight for everyone was bowling. A new bowling alley opened up in one of Phnom Penh’s many malls and I couldn’t resist showing our students one of the most popular free time activities of the West. It is moments like this when our students can forget about the struggles and turmoil in their lives and just enjoy themselves. I value creating these memories with them and I know for a fact, that they think back to these days a lot.

Just like the year before, I was in Cambodia during the Pchum Ben festival. This is always a particularly special time, as it is one of the two biggest holidays in the Khmer calendar. People decorate Pagodas with colorful ornaments and families come together to celebrate, pray, and bring food offerings to the monks. Many of our students don’t have families so it has become a tradition over the years, that we celebrate this holiday together as a found family. After dressing up in our most beautiful clothes and spending the morning at a local Pagoda, we threw a dinner party, making sure the celebrate the holiday to its fullest and making the most out of each other’s company.

Between meetings with all of our students in 6 different provinces, family visits, university registrations, graduations and thesis presentations, and fun weekend activities, the 2 months in Cambodia went by extremely fast. It is beautiful to watch our students become responsible and ambitious young adults and to see them slowly but surely unfold their true potential.

Needless to say, 2023 was a very eventful and exciting year. And while I am going to work on creating the 2023 annual report for the next couple of weeks, I can’t wait to share many more great news and new projects – involving new students – with you!

For the time being, however, I want to wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR 2024! Thank you so much for supporting our students and enabling us to change their lives for the better! Here’s to much more progress and many more achievements in the new year.