Cambodia’s ethnic minority groups such as the Kuy, Bunong and Brao have always traditionally been rice farmers or foragers of natural products such as fruit or honey, often with almost no formal education or any opportunities to attend university.

Today, that situation is rapidly changing. These minority groups are being provided with increased access to schooling and public services and now a growing number of children from these groups grow up with ambitions in higher education.

According to a government report, Cambodia has 24 minority ethnic groups located in 15 provinces, but the largest populations are in Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie, Stung Treng, Preah Vihear and Kampong Thom.

These ethnic minority groups all have their own distinct cultures and languages, but they generally use Khmer as a common language of communication between different groups and with the majority population.

Soy Pisey, a woman of the Brao ethnicity, is a prime example of the changes that are taking place today in those communities. Through hard work and studying she was selected for a scholarship programme in Norway and then won a scholarship to attend university in the US and graduated with a degree.

“I have seen that it is not just minority ethnic people, but anyone who does not have a general education, along with a specialisation or skills, will not have much opportunity to find work in modern society,” said Pisey.

Pisey, 26, is the eldest of three siblings in her family, with two younger brothers. When she was 12 years old, her father left her mother, which threw their economic situation and home life into disarray.

From that point forward, her mother struggled to raise the children on her own. Pisey said that her mother is illiterate and her father always looked down on her and didn’t value her as a person because of it, but she was determined to give her children more opportunities than she had.

Her mother sent Pisey and her two younger siblings to study at Bou Thong Tes Anlong Primary School in Laban Siek commune in Ratanakkiri province’s Banlung district, followed by Laban Siek Secondary School and Samdech Ov Samdech Mer High School.

Pisey told The Post that despite their financial struggles, her mother never let them drop out of school or seek early employment.

When she was in grade 11, Pisey won a scholarship to study the equivalent of grade 12 in Norway at United World College Red Cross for another two years until she graduated in 2016, the extra time being necessary to improve her language skills.

She then got another scholarship, this time to Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina in the US, to study for her Bachelor’s degree in business administration, accounting and communications, which she earned in four years.

“All students at the school that I studied at in Norway had the opportunity to continue on with scholarships in any country so I took that opportunity to continue my studies,” she said.

Pisey’s scholarship in the US covered the full costs of tuition, room and board, but it didn’t cover travelling costs or visits home to her family. To cover those expenses and have spending money she worked part-time jobs while attending classes.

She first worked as a library assistant at her university and then as a professor’s assistant. She was able to save some money by being strict about her spending habits so she could visit her family after her first two years of school.

After she graduated with her Bachelor’s degree from Methodist University, she returned to her hometown and began working as a communications officer at an education NGO that was building schools in communities in Rattanakiri province for a period followed by a job with the NGO Swisscontact that focuses on youth education and vocational skills.

Pisey said that all youths who want to succeed in their education must study hard beginning at the foundation level in general knowledge and then continue on to learn specialised skills in order to fully participate in society.

“If we do not have an education, our lives will be difficult. We need to use our knowledge to let them be able to offer us a job,” she said.

Pisey noted that Ratanakkiri is a long way from the capital and in the past the government did its best to encourage young people to finish school through grade 9 so they could go on to get certification in job skills. But as the nation has developed significantly the job market has become more competitive and now it’s necessary for youths to graduate from grade 12 and have vocational skills at minimum and ideally they should earn their Bachelor’s degree if they want to prosper.

Choeun Sreymom, president of the Cambodian Indigenous Women’s Working Group (CIWWG) located in Tuol Tompoung II commune of the capital’s Chamkarmon district, told The Post that education for women and especially indigenous women was more important now than ever before.

As a fellow indigenous person from a remote area like Pisey, Sreymom herself is an example of someone who was able to overcome significant obstacles and barriers to get her higher education.

She added that in the past there was little information about higher education opportunities available to people living in their circumstances, but now minority groups are being given opportunities to study thanks to the work of the government and its many NGO partners.