Perspective

I arrived safe-and-sound in New York on Monday, although the jet lag was far worse coming home than going.  A week later and I’m still recovering!

Reflecting on my month in Cambodia, the word that keeps coming to mind is perspective.  Living in a developing country for 31 days is far different than visiting for a few days or even a week or two.  I really found myself immersed in the culture, from the language (at least enough to get around by tuk-tuk) to the food. I also came away with a newfound appreciation for Cambodia’s history, both ancient and more recent.

One cannot understand Cambodia without studying the atrocities of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime. Close to one-third of the country’s population was killed. The regime also destroyed the country’s institutions: its legal and educational systems, art, music, commerce … all gone.  Rebuilding the country will take generations. In many respects, the country is starting from scratch. Pol Pot called it “Year Zero,” and, in many ways, he was successful at returning the country back in time. Thankfully, Cambodia has the support of the United Nations, foreign governments, and terrific folks at NGOs.  More importantly, many of its people—such as the students I worked with at RULE—are committed to improving the country. They’ve established structures to resolve disputes peacefully and with integrity; they are also working to improve working conditions for their fellow citizens.

My time in Cambodia has given me a new perspective on many of the things we take for granted in the United States. As imperfect as our legal system can be, we are fortunate to have a system of publicly available laws and that our institutions are based on rule-of-law principles.

Teaching at RULE has also offered me a new perspective on education. One of the most rewarding aspects of my experience was how it allowed me to focus on the fundamentals of teaching, free from a lot of the bureaucratic aspects of working in a highly regulated industry like American legal education. I was able to focus on the core aspects of teaching: establishing goals for my students, using teaching techniques that would achieve those goals, and assessing whether students met the goals I had established for them. The experienced reinforced that technology is an aid in teaching; a fancy PowerPoint is not, itself, teaching. At times, all I had was a marker and a whiteboard, but I made it work. The experience also reminded me of the importance of meeting students where they are, educationally.  For many of my students, English was a second language. I adjusted accordingly.  Adaptation was really the name of the game.  I learned to take things in stride, such as when the air conditioning was not functioning as well as it should.

So, I return to my administrative and teaching responsibilities with a renewed appreciation for the role of legal education in society and the value of teaching in a simple, clear manner that focuses on achieving stated outcomes. I also have a newfound respect for the people of Cambodia and the importance of telling their story. Many Americans have never heard of Pol Pot. Those who have are often surprised to learn that the genocide he inflicted occurred in our lifetimes.

Serving as a Fulbright Specialist has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m grateful to those who supported me and gave me this opportunity: the administrators at RULE; my students; the staff at the Embassy, CIES, and IIIE; my dean, Michael Simons; my colleagues back home who put up with my frequent video conferences and emails received at very odd times; and, of course, my husband, Jonnathan, who held down the fort at home.  As they say in Cambodia, arkoun chraen (“thank you very much”).

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About Larry Cunningham

Law professor and Vice Dean at St. John's Law School. Former prosecutor and defense attorney.
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