Submitted photo##A view of a neighborhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where Camilla Sumner lived during a gap year spent teaching and traveling abroad.
Submitted photo##A view of a neighborhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where Camilla Sumner lived during a gap year spent teaching and traveling abroad.

Camilla Sumner: Gap year reflections

It’s been almost three months since I returned home from Cambodia, and it was the best year of my life. After I graduated from high school in June 2016, I didn’t feel like college was the right step to take next. So I decided to take a gap year, and as long as it was educational in some way and I could pay for it by myself, my parents supported the idea.

I found a job teaching kindergarten in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. And after spending the summer working as a hostess and then working at a winery during harvest, I had saved up enough money to buy my plane ticket and to get settled in Cambodia.

The morning after Thanksgiving, I said goodbye to everyone and everything I knew and flew to the other side of the world to teach English and math to two classes of four year olds at the Western International School. In March, I wrote about my time teaching, and for those who read the last article, here’s a quick update on the rest of my time in Phnom Penh.

A new term started at Western, and I started teaching a new class. Instead of teaching English and math to two classes, I became a full-time teacher for one.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Camilla Sumner is a Mac High graduate currently enrolled in her first term at Pacific Lutheran University.

Unlike my previous classes, this one consisted of all the students who were falling behind in kindergarten and needed extra help. Being able to work with these students all day at a slower pace really helped them catch up. But it was a challenge. Most couldn’t recite the alphabet and many couldn’t even properly hold a pencil. We worked on one letter and one number a day, and by the end of June, most recognized all of the letters and numbers 0-20. I loved teaching so much, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about my students. Sometimes I wish I could jump on the next plane to Cambodia and teach again.

I had fun outside of work too. I was in two Khmer music videos, traveled to Mondulkiri where I washed and fed elephants, went to Koh Rong, a small tropical island off Cambodia’s coast, learned how to drive a motorbike, and for my last two weeks in Asia, I traveled with my friend from McMinnville, Maddy Chaufty, to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.

I learned many things from living in Cambodia, two of which stick out: I can be happy with far fewer things, and gratitude.

Submitted photo##Camilla Sumner plays in the water with an elephant at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I was living comfortably in Phnom Penh. I had my own studio apartment in a secure area that was the perfect size for one person. I didn’t have many luxury items. I didn’t have a TV. My place had no water heater for the first six weeks. I used a hot plate for cooking (I dreamed of getting an oven). I had minimal furniture, and most of my cookware and housewares were from the $1.90 store or the local markets. My apartment wasn’t super stylish, and definitely wouldn’t make the cover of Better Home and Gardens, but I loved it. I lived simply, and it made me happy.

Along with the realization that having a clutter-free, simple life is better, I also grew a larger sense of gratitude. Before going to Cambodia, I knew I was lucky to live a privileged life, but I didn’t completely understand how lucky I’ve been: I live in a country where I have rights and can wear anything I want; I live in a safe town and can comfortably walk around by myself; and, I am lucky to have loving parents who support me, who have encouraged me to push myself to go out of my comfort zone. I have fresh drinking water right out of my tap, and I don’t have to worry where my next meal is coming from. We are truly lucky to live where we do.

A year ago, I wasn’t excited to go to school. I had been accepted and given a very generous financial aid award to Pacific Lutheran University, but the school wasn’t my first choice and I didn’t think I could be happy there. I now understand I am lucky to even have the chance to go to college, and I will still have a great time there and get a valuable education. Gratitude, I’ve discovered, is key to happiness.

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, I really struggled. I was sad, lonely, and uncomfortable. Living alone in a foreign country is really hard. I was on high alert, afraid of everyone and everything around me. It took time, but after about six weeks I started to figure things out. I learned how to live on my own, budget my money, and get around the city in tuk tuks and motos. I couldn’t imagine ever being comfortable in such a foreign place; but sure enough, six months later it felt like home. I loved it so much I extended my stay an extra month.

When I arrived back to the States, things I once took for granted seemed strange and new. It first hit me in the Seattle Airport. This was the first place in the past seven months where I was no longer the minority. For once, I blended into the crowd and wasn’t getting stared at and could understand the language. At home, I was amazed at how much food there was in my fridge and how it was all free for me to eat!

Submitted photo##Camilla Sumner’s Cambodian students after finishing a Minions craft project.

I have been in school for a month now, and I’m doing great. My parents asked me if I was nervous at all, but adjusting to college is much easier than adjusting to a foreign country. I am surrounded by people my age with similar interests who speak the same language. If I’m hungry, I wander to the dining hall where someone cooks my food and does the dishes. I don’t have to worry about shopping, cooking, budgeting or cleaning. After Cambodia, college is a breeze.

If you or a family member is considering a gap year, I recommend it. Not only was it a valuable learning experience, it also taught me how to be an adult, aiding my transition into college. My advice to anyone interested in taking a gap year is to start looking for opportunities early, do your research and don’t limit yourself to one place. Look online for volunteer or teaching options. Understand it may be a really hard adjustment, but with some hard work, grit and time, a life that previously seemed impossible turns into everyday happiness. You won’t regret it.


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