Friday, October 23, 2009

Professor helps build Psychology Dept.
at Cambodian University

By Jim Kanak
Staff Columnist
For Dr. Cindy Lahar, Department Chair of Biological and Social Sciences at York County Community College, a vacation trip to Cambodia in 2000 literally changed her life. As a result, Lahar got involved with the Royal University of Phnom Penh and has worked with the school since 2004 to help build the capacity of the university’s psychology department, the only such department anywhere in Cambodia.
“It’s the only psych department in the country,” said Lahar. “There is a highly needy population for mental health services, but none are available. The psychology department is being called on to train people.”
Lahar explained that Cambodia’s history is a particularly traumatic one, dating from the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, when much of the population was killed. “They targeted educated people.,” she said “Teachers and doctors were the first to be killed so many moved out. Once the country began to rebuild in the 1990s, there were few educated people, but the population sees education as very important.”
Lahar applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the country in 2004 and work with RUPP’s psychology department. She got another scholarship in 2006.
“Fulbright’s goal was to train all the teachers there in research methodology,” Lahar said. “I proposed to do training in research methods and to do research into volunteerism, to explore the motivation for volunteering and whether it was different in these cultures. I learned I had to step back and ask a more basic question - what does it mean to be a volunteer and how does someone define volunteerism?”
The second Fulbright involved working with the psychology department as a “teacher, trainer, all around specialist - however they needed me,” Lahar said.
She has returned once or twice a year, along with professionals also from outside of Cambodia, to work with the teachers in the department. Lahar said she has started to see the efforts bear fruit. “We have developed a Master’s program and kicked it off in 2008,” she said. “There are 12 to 14 students in their second year to earn a Master’s in Counseling. There are 15 or so active teachers in the undergraduate program, but only one has a Master’s. The teachers need training to be able to present material to the undergraduate students.”
The goal is to have the program’s graduates accepted as master’s level counselors outside of Cambodia. “There are a lot of Master’s programs in Cambodia, but few are accepted outside the country,” she said. “We need to push them toward international standards in the curriculum.”
Lahar’s next trip to Cambodia begins in January, 2010. She has a sabbatical at YCCC and plans to spend most of the semester working at RUPP. “It’s been an incredible experience,” she said. “Some years I go there and think ‘what more can I do?’ Then I get there and in a few weeks, I’m so busy. Every time I leave there saying ‘boy, I’ve got to get back there soon.’”
Lahar’s work at RUPP has actually resulted in a new organization she formed in Maine, a nonprofit called Reach Out To Education, or ROTE. It’s creation stemmed from the efforts of one of her Cambodian colleagues to keep rural youngsters in school. “One of the teachers in the Psych Department introduced me to a friend who was the first person from his village to graduate from a university,” said Lahar. “He started an organization to help support kids who would drop out to work. It gives money to the family to allow the kids to stay in school.”
Lahar has raised $2,400 in each of the last two years to bring over to that program. She had been getting donations from individuals, but decided to form the organization as a tax-exempt group to formalize things.
Her work has not been overlooked by her YCCC colleagues. “Cindy’s work in Cambodia has enriched our college environment,” said Paula Gagnon, Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs. “Sharing her curriculum development work in Cambodia has enabled those in our Academic Community to benefit from her experiences. It has also brought YCCC students into direct (electronic) contact with students from halfway round the globe. A small community college in Maine has a first-hand experience internationally as a direct result of Cindy’s work.
For Lahar, that work will continue. “This is a lifetime engagement,” she said. “I have made great friends. It’s just marvelous. I’ve been blessed with opportunities.”
Photo caption: YCCC Professor Cindy Lahar, third from left, with teachers at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Lahar’s been working with the university since 2004. (Courtesy photo)