Pagna Sophal Donlevy ’13 emigrated to the United States from Cambodia on her own at the age of 16, but she always kept her homeland in mind. This summer she returned there to create opportunities for young people and women as a 2012 winner of a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace award.
She was one of approximately 100 undergraduates nationwide selected to receive a grant. The Projects for Peace program was launched in 2007 by Kathryn Wasserman Davis, a noted philanthropist and the mother of Wheaton Trustee Diana Davis Spencer ’60, to support peace-promoting summer projects developed by college students.
With the funding, Donlevy traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to establish a mathematics education program for teens and a micro-lending initiative for women-owned businesses.
The youngest of six daughters, she came to the United States in 2004, lived with the Donlevy family of Attleboro, Mass., and graduated from Attleboro High School in 2008. After graduating from Bristol Community College on a full scholarship, she transferred to Wheaton, where she is now majoring in mathematics. Donlevy, who changed her surname from Eam in honor of her foster parents, selected Sophal as her middle name in honor of her mother.
Drawing upon her six years of experience tutoring adults and children in math, Donlevy partnered with the People Improvement Organization (PIO) in Phnom Penh to establish math classes in English for students in grades seven through nine. PIO provides education and training to nearly 900 young people, ages 5 to 24, including orphans, street children, and children with AIDS and HIV. However, the organization lacks the resources to provide instruction in English, she says, and young people who are skilled in both math and English are in high demand in the workplace.
Pagna Sophal Donlevy ’13
Donlevy set up evening classes for students who already have a working knowledge of English; hired a professional teacher and two university students to take over the program under the guidance of PIO’s director; provided a syllabus and introduced the instructors to current teaching methods in mathematics.
She also created a micro-lending program for skilled women who hope to start family businesses. The interest from these loans will in turn be used to sustain the math education program.
“Providing women with a little money to start businesses will help them gain independence and economic self-sufficiency,” she says. “It will be a source of motivation for these women to work hard to achieve a higher status of living. These women will have children, and those future children will follow their mothers’ example.”
Cambodia has endured decades of civil war and violence, beginning with French decolonization in 1946 and continuing through the Vietnam War and beyond. During the Cambodian genocide of 1975–1979, the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot committed mass murder on its people. At least 1.7 million people lost their lives, according to the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University.
Today, the violence persists through ongoing border wars, and the nation struggles with a rapidly growing population, a high rate of joblessness, and an unskilled workforce.
“Though I am now a U.S. citizen, part of my heart is in Cambodia,” Donlevy says. “My mother survived the genocide, but conflict continued through the 1990s. My mother and her six daughters worked very hard together just to survive and make a living. We have all experienced war. We have all suffered. I have a vested interest in those in Cambodia who are just like me—young people who have suffered and continue to do so.”
Photo by Amie Rosenblum ’12