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The power of persistence: One student’s fight to educate himself and others

Sarakk Rith holding up a certificate smiling, standing in front of a brick wall

Photo: Sarakk Rith, courtesy of PEPY Empowering Youth

Growing up in a remote village of Cambodia in a country still wracked with civil war, Sarakk Rith was determined to go to school. “My father was very enthusiastic about education,” he recalls. “He didn’t get an education because of the Khmer Rouge regime, but he wanted his kids to get an education.”

It was an easy 15-minute walk to primary school, but by secondary school, Rith woke at 4 a.m. to eat and then peddle his secondhand bike 1-2 hours each way, often through rain, wrenching his bike free of the muddy road. Going to high school meant leaving home altogether to live with monks at a Buddhist temple in a city far from home. As he advanced through school, classmate after classmate dropped out.

But Rith persisted, eventually scraping together enough money to earn his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Now he’s a Master of Science student in Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and determined to make a difference for other young people in rural and remote places who yearn for an education.

Before coming to Wisconsin, Rith served as executive director for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called PEPY Empowering Youth in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “We try to ensure that young people who live in undeserved areas can get an education, attain a decent job and have a positive impact on their community,” he explains.

In 2019, Rith participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), and the five-week experience made him hungry to learn more about education in the United States. He won a scholarship from the Open Society Foundations to pursue his master’s degree at a U.S. college, and after a colleague talked up UW , Rith decided to move more than 8,000 miles away to Madison.

The School of Human Ecology offers a perspective that Rith couldn’t get in his home country. He learned on the job how to manage a nonprofit, but he wanted to go deeper, and there were no classes on nonprofits and NGOs at his local universities.

“Running a nonprofit, you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing, addressing the root cause. You don’t want to just address the symptom,” he says. “I feel like we always want to make our organization better, not just stay in our own comfort zone. What else can we do to influence our community?”

His master’s program is already changing the way he approaches his work at PEPY Empowering Youth, where he remains on staff as a part-time senior advisor. “I still have weekly meetings with my organization so I can share with them what I’m learning here,” he says. “They don’t need to wait until I complete my degree.”

From trauma-informed learning to how to engage stakeholders, Rith is gaining new insights and skills. For his capstone project, he’s focusing on how to implement a mentorship program at PEPY Empowering Youth. “It’s more than I expected to learn,” he says. “I have some ideas about new initiatives, and donors for my organization are very enthusiastic about my ideas.”

But even at this stage in life, education has meant sacrifices. Rith had to leave his 3-year-old daughter in Cambodia while he completes his master’s program. “I miss home very much sometimes,” he admits.

But he knows it will be worth it when he returns to Cambodia to help the next generation. “I really want to influence curriculum development and systems back in my country,” he says.

Improving education in remote and rural areas helps everyone, he notes. “We all live on the globe together,” he says. “When you help other people, you can make a complete difference in someone’s life, and they can pay it forward. Because you are living in a society in a community, and if those people are supported and they are living well, it’s going to be a beautiful society.”