Bringing it back home

Pagna Sophal Donlevy ’13, a Cambodian who emigrated to the U.S. on her own at the age of 16, has won a Davis Projects for Peace award to create opportunities for young people and women in her homeland.

Donlevy will use the $10,000 grant to travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this summer to establish a mathematics education program for teens and a micro-lending initiative to provide seed money for women-owned businesses. She is one of approximately 100 undergraduates nationwide to receive the grant from the Davis Projects for Peace program.

The youngest of six daughters, she came to the U.S. 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 name from Eam in honor of her foster parents, also selected Sophal as her middle name in honor of her mother. She has been tutoring adults and children in math for six years and feels well equipped to teach the subject to young Cambodians.

Donlevy will partner with the People Improvement Organization (PIO) in Phnom Penh to establish math classes in English for students in grades 7-9. PIO provides education and training to nearly 900 young people, ages 5 to 24, including orphans, street children, and children with AIDS and HIV. But the organization lacks the resources to provide instruction in English, Donlevy says, and young people who are skilled in both math and English are in high demand in the workplace.

Donlevy plans to set up evening classes for students who already have a working knowledge of English, then hire a professional teacher and two university students to take over the program under the guidance of PIO’s director. She will provide a syllabus and introduce the instructors to current teaching methods in mathematics; she also hopes to bring donated textbooks and materials from the U.S.

With about $4,000 of the grant money, Donlevy will establish 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,” Donlevy 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 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 (more than 20 percent of the population) lost their lives, according to the Cambodian Genocide Project 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 work force.

“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.”

The Davis Projects for Peace program was launched by Kathryn Wasserman Davis in 2007 on the occasion of her 100th birthday, when she pledged $1 million to fund 100 peace-promoting summer projects developed by college students. The program has continued in ensuing years, with the objective of encouraging and supporting today’s young people to implement their own ideas for building peace in the 21st century. A noted philanthropist, Davis is the mother of Wheaton Trustee Diana Davis Spencer ’60.Pagna Donlevy