SOJ Insider | South East Asia

Students receive valuable lessons from Southeast Asia study abroad

By Natalie Eddy

Two SOJ students participated in a study-abroad program last summer in Southeast Asia that has changed their lives forever.

Robert Rizzuto, who graduated in May 2007, and Kendal Montgomery, a news-editorial major, went to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to help put together a multimedia documentary about the country’s culture, society and life, specifically, the growing problem of human trafficking in Cambodia and Thailand. But the lessons they learned went well beyond the project.

“We saw some extremely poor people with no real chance of pulling themselves out of poverty,” said Rizzuto. “Once you see poverty like that, it gives you a different perspective on life. To see someone born with nothing, live with nothing and then die with nothing, it gave me the realization that every day is a gift here in America.”

Montgomery echoed Rizzuto’s statements, adding, “There was a lot of human trafficking with very young girls [in Cambodia]. Traveling through the villages and seeing all of those children with no opportunities was so sad because that’s where it starts. It was an experience that changed my life.”

The two went to Southeast Asia through a linkage agreement between WVU and An Giang University in southern Vietnam. Montgomery and Rizzuto accompanied WVU Associate Professor Neal Newfield, who teaches in the Division of Social Work; Susan Newfield, Neal’s wife and associate professor of nursing at WVU; and Jim Keim, director of the Southeast Asia Children’s Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of child trafficking.

The trip was multifunctional for the group – to teach and participate in a social work and public health course with Vietnamese students at An Giang University and to interview people for documentaries about sex trafficking in Cambodia and Thailand.

The group visited a brothel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, as part of their fact-finding effort. One side of the night club held a family karaoke bar, and behind a door on the other side, 20 to 30 young women sat behind a glass enclosure, called a fish bowl, with numbers pinned to their shirts.

“Men would come in and order a number,” said Montgomery. “Some guy would yell out the number with a microphone, and the girls would come out and leave with the buyer.

“We paid to talk to a couple of girls at the fish bowl. They looked extremely young, but they all said they were 18. They’re trained to do that.”

Most of the women working in the fish bowl are debt bonded. It is not uncommon for daughters to pay off personal or family debt by serving as a sex worker. In more impoverished areas, young people become sex workers just to provide income for their families, and still others are abducted and forced into prostitution.

Rizzuto and Montgomery said the trip opened their eyes to how difficult life in other countries can be. Rizzuto recorded many of his experiences on the University’s popular Blogging from Abroad website, which can be accessed at http://fromabroad.blogs.wvu.edu/.

Montgomery took more than 1,000 pictures on the trip. “This was my dream – to travel, take pictures and show aspects of the world that aren’t always seen,” she said. A full-page spread in the Aug. 17, 2007, edition of The Daily Athenaeum featured some of Montgomery’s photos.

The two students agree it was a personally enriching trip.

“I learned how lucky we happen to be here in the USA,” said Rizzuto. “There are opportunities that exist in the United States that are not present in many rural areas of Southeast Asia. We like to complain about how difficult it is here, but we’re lucky to have the luxury of complaining.”

“I went into the situation with a very nave outlook,” said Montgomery. “I thought that I could truly make change in my short six weeks after being over there. It was a really important lesson for me: that to make change in something of such caliber would take countless visits . . . Educating yourself and others on it is a step in the right direction.”

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