Citizen of the world: Sothy Eng connects Lehigh to Cambodia

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Sothy Eng is a professor of practice of comparative and international education at Lehigh. A Cambodian native, Eng brings students in the Global Citizenship and Iacocca Internship programs to his home country every year to conduct research and increase cultural awareness. (Courtesy of Sothy Eng)

Sothy Eng wasn’t like most kids.

He learned at an early age not to complain, especially about food and especially to his parents. He learned that stories of hunger, torture and murder were the norm. He learned that an obligation to ensure his family’s happiness would always rule his life.

Eng, a professor of practice of comparative and international education at Lehigh, has brought everything he learned as a child to his current position. This is his sixth year in Bethlehem, but he’s nearly 9,000 miles from home.

Eng was born in Puk-Russei, Cambodia, in the years following the Cambodian genocide, a massacre that spanned from 1975 to 1979. An estimated two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime, a quarter of the country’s population.

Although Eng’s parents survived, they did not escape the tragedy unscathed. They lost hundreds of their friends and family members. Among the dead were all four of their children, who each died of disease.

Once the genocide ended, Eng’s parents decided to have three more children, of whom he is the oldest.

“Growing up, I appreciated what I had,” Eng said. “I rarely complained. I tried to find as many opportunities as I could.”

In Cambodia, where the quality of education was poor, Eng worked tirelessly. He longed for a proper education in the United States. During his senior year, Eng was one of five students at his university in Phnom Penh to be chosen to write a thesis. Since he majored in psychology and worked at a children’s hospital, he wrote his thesis on the parenting of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

While looking through the hospital’s library one day, Eng found an article that related to his thesis topic. He reached out to its author — a professor at Texas Tech University named Miriam Mulsow. Eng said she responded to his email right away and was helpful throughout the process. He would email her questions, and she would help him with research.

When Eng graduated in 2002, Mulsow invited him to Texas Tech to continue his graduate studies, all expenses paid.

His dream of relocating to the U.S. had finally come true.

He finished his doctorate in 2009 from Texas Tech and went to the University of California, Los Angeles, for a year-long postdoctoral fellowship. In 2010, when looking for a job, Eng saw that Lehigh was hiring someone to lead a partnership between the university and Cambodia.

“It was like someone wrote the job for me,” Eng said.

At Lehigh, Eng works with students who express an interest in doing research or program development for Caring for Cambodia. CFC is a nonprofit organization that builds technologically equipped schools in Cambodia, trains teachers and funds educational supplies for Cambodian children.

These Lehigh students meet with Eng to go through their proposals, and he eventually chooses between two and five students every semester to go on a trip to Cambodia. There, the students collect and analyze data about how to improve the CFC schools and share their findings with Bill Amelio, the founder of the organization and a Lehigh graduate.

Eng has also led the Iacocca International Internship Program in Cambodia for the past five summers, and in January, he returned to his hometown for his second annual trip with Global Citizenship. The GC program, composed of approximately 50 undergraduate students, combines academic courses and travel experience to encourage global consciousness among students.

Laura Dean works in the International Students and Scholars Office as the primary graduate assistant. This past winter, she traveled to Cambodia with Eng as a trip leader for the GC program.

“You know when you go with him that you’re going to get a well-rounded experience because he’s just so in tune with the country,” Dean said. “Although I will say that he has grown to love the U.S. too, so he’s split between the two now.”

Eng credits himself in bringing Lehigh and Cambodia together. Before 2011, Lehigh did not offer any programs in Cambodia. Eng said without his connection to Cambodia and Amelio’s nonprofit organization, the relationship Lehigh has formed with the country would not be where it is today.

“I’m proud to bring students (to Cambodia) for them to learn about what it means to be a world citizen,” Eng said.

Summer Sullivan, ’17, a member of GC, thinks Eng’s positivity and constant encouragement are his greatest qualities as a teacher and a person. She believes it is what drives his students to gain global awareness.

“In my three years of knowing Sothy (Eng), I have rarely heard him say anything even remotely pessimistic,” Sullivan said. “He always makes me feel like I am capable of anything and has put trust in me when I’m not sure I even deserved it. Being able to absorb even a little bit of the positive vibes he radiates is a privilege.”

Although Eng has been a resident of the U.S. for nearly 14 years, he still feels connected to his home, largely due to the work he fulfills at Lehigh.

Through his position in the College of Education, he visits Cambodia three or four times each year to give back to the country that raised him. Eng said he is motivated by Cambodia’s past, his parents’ suffering and his siblings’ deaths.

“My philosophy is that where there is struggling, there is also opportunity,” Eng said. “You just need to look for it.”

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