My first encounter with TASSEL was in my IB history class. I do not recall the details, but I remember Joji coming into a small classroom full of half-awake high school boys to talk about the program. Frankly, I was also exhausted at that time from classes and wrestling practices, so I was fighting hard not to fall asleep. Yet, to this day, I vividly remember how serious Joji was. Though not overly expressive, he spoke with clarity and assertiveness – this program is about true service. I thought, “How noble would it be if I could partake in this service act…” Unfortunately, that was the end of my thought; I was not ready to take on that level of responsibility.
I came to the US for the first time in 2014 for my undergraduate studies. In retrospect, Hope College, a small private Christian college, was an ideal place to begin my life in the US. The people in Holland, MI were all very nice and friendly, sometimes incomprehensibly so. Thanks to many good fellow Christians, my faith in Christ and my understanding of the Scripture grew. By the end of the first semester, I was reminded of the importance of service. This rekindled my interest in TASSEL, and without hesitation, I contacted my history teacher who communicated with Joji. Soon, I and Joji were connected and we had our first online meeting. Listening to Joji, I reconfirmed TASSEL is very special. I was especially impressed that Joji considers the quality of volunteers seriously; it is the complete opposite of a typical volunteer group designed to attract any students. Inspired yet again by the goal of TASSEL, I wasted no time founding Hope College chapter.
Recruiting committed college students was perhaps one of the most challenging tasks I took on as a teenager. I experienced a constant flux of people who join only to leave in a week or two for reasons that were as vague as fog. Clearly, a transformation of our hearts was needed. Personally, this occurred when I visited Cambodia for the first time in the summer of 2015. The amount of work Joji and local Khmer teachers were putting in to create a fertile ground for education was simply inexplicable. Many poignant stories of TASSEL students’ families added extra dimensions to this service work. I was there not only to teach, but also to serve in love. I wish I could write down everything that I learned and felt from this visit. For now, I must refrain from that as I have other important perspectives to share. Suffice to say, I was a different person when I came back from Cambodia. When I shared my experience to the rest of the chapter, the mood changed. People stopped leaving the group, and we became one team sharing a common conviction.
Hope College was one of the first colleges to join the TASSEL program, which meant we taught more local Khmer teachers than we did children. That was when I truly got to know Samath, one of the founding members of TASSEL. I had met him during my first visit, so I already knew how good his English was. During our lessons, he would almost always get a perfect score in grammar quizzes, and I had to look for harder materials! Needless to say, he is a phenomenal student. At that time, I was reading a great deal on Greco-Roman philosophy so I shared a concept from The Republic by Plato. Inspired, Samath started having an impromptu philosophical discourse with me, ultimately leading him to teach me about Cambodian government and its history. It was an ideal mentor-mentee relationship because our understanding was growing together. His intellectual curiosity and mental acuity pushed me to work harder at my academics. It is an understatement that Samath impacted my life positively. His work-ethic and dedication to teaching inspired me daily to do well in all aspects of my life – whether academics, volunteer services, or research.
TASSEL also influenced my career choice as well. During my multiple visits to Cambodia, I became increasingly aware of the poor health care system (if any…) in Cambodia. Many public hospitals were unorganized, inefficient, and understaffed. Even a well-funded private hospital seemed to lack doctors equipped with sufficient knowledge to help the patients. Previously, I had been interested in becoming a medical doctor because I thought that was the best way to help people directly. However, I realized that was not the only way to help, especially when I also loved conducting research and thinking about physics in my spare time in addition to medicine. As senior year neared, I was constantly asking myself “how can I combine my passion for physics, medicine, research, and teaching into a single vocation, and eventually circle back to Cambodia?” Consequently, I applied to the Harvard/MIT Health Science and Technology graduate program as an answer to this question. A quick overview: students in the program would learn from the world’s leading scientists, engineers, and physicians about current local and global health problems while conducting research in any of the labs in Boston/Cambridge area. Besides the prospect of getting a quality medical school/STEM education, I was excited to have access to the many resources at MIT for doing service work abroad. It was indeed great news when I officially received an acceptance letter. To me, this was a sign that I was on the right track.
Currently, I am working at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine in Massachusetts General Hospital. Specifically, I am conducting research in the field of biomedical optics focusing on fundamental technology development. I chose optics because it is the most relevant physics in all aspects of medicine: diagnosis, therapeutics, and surgery. Though optics alone cannot solve problems I witnessed in Cambodia, having the technical background in a specific area will be useful when I collaborate with other committed people to tackle these issues long-term.
As you can see, TASSEL and my life are inseparable. I would not be where I am now without Joji, Samath, my friends from Hope, and all of the TASSEL family. I cannot thank enough all the volunteers who selflessly served Cambodia for the sake of service. I am very lucky to witness many transformations that happened to me as well as Khmers through prayers. It is my intention to continue serving for Cambodia through TASSEL with my own unique capacity.