Brief Spotlight: Saren Keang, Heller MA’17

Photo of Keang
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Saren Keang, Heller MA’17

Hometown: Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Studies: Dual MA in sustainable international development, and coexistence and conflict.

Career goal: To become the executive director of UN Women.

Motto: “I didn’t come this far to come only this far.”

My Story

My mother quit school in third grade to work in a grocery store. My father, who was a passionate student, had to leave school after sixth grade because of the Cambodian civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocide.

My father supported us by making sugar from palm-tree fruits. Every day, he climbed palm trees. After he became ill, my mother became the breadwinner, selling meat, vegetables and cooking oil in remote areas. My three sisters and I helped her after school. I started helping when I was 8 years old.

When I was little, I cried to go to school with my older sister, and my father talked the teachers into letting me go. When my oldest sister got pulled out after fourth grade to help support the family, I got scared and pushed myself even harder.

My community puts a lot of pressure on girls to quit school and not go to college. “You will get married, and your husband will take care of you,” they say. Girls cannot go farther than the kitchen. We are supposed to become somebody’s wife.

But my teachers believed in me and told my parents to keep me in school, no matter what. I always finished first in my class, so, finally, the teachers cut out my school fee.

People still had things to say about my future: Maybe I could be a teacher or a tour guide. I told them I knew exactly what I could be.

When I was in 12th grade, someone from an NGO came to my school and suggested I apply to the Asian University for Women, in Chittagong, Bangladesh. I won a full scholarship, and majored in Asian studies and gender studies.

After I graduated, two foundations were ready to fund my graduate studies. Who would have guessed that a girl from a small Cambodian village would be choosing between fully funded studies in Durham, England, and Waltham, Massachusetts?

I am passionate about women’s issues and girls’ education. If girls are supported, they’re unstoppable.