Harpswell Foundation, Phnom Penh
March 1, 2015
Good afternoon. I would like to thank Dr. Alan Lightman, Senior Manager Eng Varony, and everyone from the Harpswell Foundation for inviting me to speak in today’s leadership seminar. It is an honor to be here with so many bright and talented young women about whom I’ve heard so much.
Since its founding, the Harpswell Foundation has been providing education, housing, and leadership training to help prepare young women to contribute to Cambodia. The U.S. Embassy is honored to partner with Harpswell in its mission to promote women’s empowerment. As you may know, last year, Ambassador Todd spoke at the inauguration of the Women’s Empowerment Program to recognize and support the work being done by the Harpswell Foundation, the Women in Public Service Project, and Pannasastra University.
It is fitting that we are gathered here on the first day of March to kick off Women’s History Month. In the United States, we highlight the many economic, political, and social achievements of women during the month. And on March 8, Cambodia and many countries around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day.
I am here today to share with you some of my personal stories, which include some of the challenges I have faced as an immigrant to the United States and as a professional woman balancing work and family.
First of all, when I tell people I am an American diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy, they often comment, “But you look Asian!” So I explain that I was born in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated to California with my family when I was five years old. I still remember how we packed all of our belongings in one suitcase and moved to a new country without speaking the language or knowing the customs. Nevertheless, my family embraced this new beginning with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and a sense of adventure.
My father started working as a janitor while my mother found a job as a dishwasher, both earning a minimum wage. Through hard work and determination, my father went to night school to earn a master’s degree and eventually became a successful CEO of an engineering company that works on the International Space Station. This story exemplifies the American dream and demonstrates that the United States is a country of opportunity. My father’s success came through education, hard work, and faith – all of which remain core pillars in my family to this day. Those early years were not easy but made us stronger as a family and I learned to value the spirit of adventure and optimism in my adopted country, America.
After earning my Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, San Diego and my Master’s degree in international affairs and economic policy from Columbia University, I joined the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer in 1996. Over the course of my career, I have served in China, Japan, Vietnam, Colombia, Iraq, Thailand, and now Cambodia.
Like many women, I have faced challenges in my profession as a diplomat. Early on in my career in East Asia, I would frequently be the only woman present at meetings. The men attending the meeting would all assume that I was a secretary who was there to pour the coffee. I had to politely explain that I was the U.S. government official representing the embassy. This did not surprise me, but I learned that sometimes people will judge you depending on how you look or because of your age or whether you are a woman. I approached this challenge unfazed, determined to demonstrate my abilities and prove myself through hard work.
Since becoming the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh seven months ago, I have had the privilege to travel around Cambodia and speak with people from many backgrounds. Again and again, I have witnessed the important role Cambodian women play in their families and communities. They operate stores, manage businesses large and small, and keep farms and factories operating, often while running a household and raising small children. As a mother to a two-year old, I understand the struggle of balancing family obligations with the demands of a job. Like women in Cambodia, I have sought support from my husband, families, and friends. In fact, I believe not being afraid to ask for help is a sign of a woman’s strength.
While there has been much progress, women in Cambodia still face many obstacles to fulfilling their potential. A recent USAID report cited two of the greatest factors restraining women’s empowerment in Cambodia: a lack of self-confidence and little support from their family or community. Cultural norms also prevent women from pursuing political leadership roles and participating in civic engagement. While these obstacles may seem formidable, I am confident that your generation will be more successful in the push for women’s equality in Cambodia. This is something that is a work in progress in the United States as well, where it wasn’t always fair and equal treatment for women. However, outspoken female and male leaders throughout our history have worked to make life better for each new generation. Even today, there are ongoing efforts to advance the women’s cause for independence and equal rights in the United States. We strive for equal pay, access to quality health care, and affordable education. As more leaders raise awareness of these issues, we have the opportunity to create a better environment for the next generation. As President Obama said, “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”
I firmly believe women should have the same opportunities as men for Cambodia to live up to its potential. Expanding educational access for women is particularly important and with the right mentorship and support, I have no doubt that you, as a young Cambodian woman, can achieve anything you want. You can become a scientist, an engineer, a university professor, a diplomat, or a community leader.
Before I conclude, I would like to encourage you to explore the many opportunities and programs the U.S. Embassy has to offer for Cambodian youth, such as joining the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), a program launched by President Barack Obama to support youth like you who are concerned with economic development, environmental protection, education, and civic engagement in Southeast Asia. I recently met Mary Hem, who participated in the YSEALI Professional Fellows Program in the state of Montana. This prestigious month-long fellowship in the United States allowed Mary to broaden her expertise on women’s empowerment, networking with American colleagues and emerging leaders from around the world. It is inspiring to see how Mary is using her experience in the United States to advocate for gender equality in education and to mentor students in Kampong Cham.
Congratulations to each one of you for all that you have accomplished thus far in your education. You are an inspiration to me and many others. You each have your own stories and struggles of how you got here and what path you will take from this point on. My story and the story of my family is one of millions around the world that relay the spirit of hard work and perseverance to overcome challenges. I hope you maintain that spirit to motivate you to continue to study hard and pursue opportunities to become active in your community. As the future leaders of this country, you have a tremendous power to build a better, stronger Cambodia and let your voices be heard. Thank you.