Cambodia's influence

Boat in Cambodia

Jon Cooper (center) traveling in Cambodia

When Jon Cooper ‘08 landed in Cambodia in 2007, he had a severe case of culture stress: “Cambodia was my first taste of another part of the world,” he said. “I was really overwhelmed. I mean, I really think the two cultures couldn’t be more different.”

It took Cooper two weeks to grow accustomed to Cambodia, and he still remembers the interim fondly—particularly the evenings he spent dancing with the locals at one village church. “Every night we were there, we’d fire up the generator and be dancing as long as everyone wanted to stay up,” he said.

When he returned to Calvin, the Calvin engineering student returned to normal life. “I went back to work. I finished up the senior design project I was working on.” A civil and environmental concentrator, he was working on an academic building for Bethany Global University, a component of NIBC. “That was really the entire reason I went to Cambodia in the first place,” he said.

He couldn’t stop thinking about Cambodia. “It had been on my mind for the month-and-a-half that I got back,” he said. So, using the money he got for his 2008 graduation and raising a little extra support, he returned to the country.

He traveled for a while, then began teaching at the Ephpha-tha prep school at the NIBC. “It was great, sitting up late and talking to them, becoming part of a close-knit family,” he said of his students and the staff. Two months into his teaching stint, Cooper got a call to live in Phnom Penh and work on a grant to fund exchange scholarships for a consortium of eight universities. After two months there, the grant fell through. “It was really hard to come out of that experience with nothing other than a tough lesson learned,” he admitted.

Cooper returned to NIBC to teach for two-and-a-half more months. He then moved on to Eden Farm, where he not only built a dam on the creek, but a hut to live in. With Ly Chhay, Cooper planned out the irrigation for the farm. In between teaching and farming, he traveled: “I would take those buses, the cheapest buses that the locals would take,” he said.

Now employed at Viability, LLC in Holland, Mich., Cooper reflected on his time in Cambodia: “I wish I would have seen a lot of the fruits of what I did, but I know that my place in this whole development scheme was really to get some of the projects moving … ,” he said. “I just tried to be the hands of other people’s plans.”