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Alumni Profile

Revitalizing Cambodia

Kol Pheng

Kol Pheng, MA ’77, PhD ’87, founder of Paññnāsāstra University of Cambodia (PUC), visited campus in October 2010 to sign a formal partnership between PUC and MU. Photo by Nicholas Benner

Kol Pheng, senior minister for the Cambodian government, wanted to show his son the hot dog stand where he ate lunch every day for five years. While in Columbia to discuss an educational partnership with Mizzou, he veered into the Student Center but found vastly different dining options. He was impressed with the upgrades but continued reminiscing about those soft hot dog buns.

A similar thing happened when Pheng, MA ’77, PhD ’87, got near the MU Power Plant. He scanned the adjacent land. Commuters now know it only as a parking lot, but Pheng remembers it as a residential area where he lived during the 1970s genocide in his native Cambodia.

Pheng came to MU through a USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) scholarship in 1974, when his home country was in the midst of a civil war. One year later, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, ravaged its cities, executed the educated class and minorities, and forced others into labor on communal farms. One week before the government crumbled, Pheng’s wife and four of their children boarded a helicopter out of Cambodia and joined Pheng in his small Columbia home.

“I still remember a big tree behind the house where I had a tomb for my beloved pigeon, which I raised for several weeks before it passed away,” says Pheng, now a senior minister for the Cambodian government. While on campus in October 2010, he found the backyard tree as well the dusty pigeon grave — vivid memories from his nine years in Columbia.

When he first arrived in Missouri, Pheng spoke no English; the Cambodian schools were French-based, and he had studied in Paris. Pheng enrolled in a summer English program and then registered as a graduate student in the economics department. While working toward his doctorate, he was a research economist for the Missouri Public Service Commission, and in 1983 Pheng moved to Austin, Texas, where he worked for the state’s Public Utility Commission for 15 years.

Pheng returned to Cambodia 13 years ago to help rehabilitate the country and to start a new university. Opening a higher education institution proved quite a challenge in an unstable country that lacks a middle class and has traditionally had high barriers to education.

“We originally were authorized to open in 1997, but due to the political instability before, we lost a lot of money in the first stage,” he says. “A lot of my friends said to give up; it’s not possible to do. But I never give up; I persist.”

To gain leverage with the government, Pheng joined a political party and earned a seat in the new House of Representatives. He opened Paññnāsāstra University of Cambodia (PUC) on the first day of the millennium with 389 students enrolled.

“Our philosophy and vision of the university is to develop teachers to not only have good skills and professional knowledge but also have honorable conduct, a loving heart and to excel in every capacity,” Pheng says. PUC now serves 20,000 students on nine campuses.

In 2004, Pheng stepped down as PUC president to accept a four-year term as Cambodia’s minister of education, youth and sports. “It was a big challenge for me to develop policy, develop new curriculum, change the language from French to English and open the education from private to public,” he says.

He advocated for research projects to be incorporated into high school requirements and got used books donated to help build library collections.

“In my time, we did nothing but go to school and copy everything from the teacher off the board,” he says. “We didn’t have any materials. In high schools, there’s a small classroom reserved for a library, but no books in there. I told an ambassador, ‘If you want Cambodia to have democracy and human rights, do not give money to the government to change their minds or change their style in leadership; send books.’ ”

In 2008, Pheng accepted a higher policy-based position as vice chairman of the Supreme National Council for Education, and he remains the university’s chairman and CEO.

In November 2010, Pheng advanced PUC another step as he and MU Chancellor Brady J. Deaton signed a formal partnership for academic exchanges between MU and PUC. James Scott, MU associate vice provost for international initiatives, says this partnership complements the university’s strong connections in East Asia.

“A lot of our strongest relationships are based on personal alumni connections,” he says. “Cambodia is developing quickly economically and will need new skills, which we can help provide.”

Pheng hopes the exchanges will improve the country’s educational development by helping train Cambodian teachers, who often work multiple jobs, as rice and vegetable farmers or motorcycle taxi drivers, to make ends meet.

“My ultimate goal is to make Cambodia a well-educated society, regain the smile and kindness of all Cambodian traditions, blend with the international community and be on par with all the Asian nations’ development,” he says. “That’s a long way to go for us, but the first step is the most important.” — Stephanie Detillier