My Story

I am a first-generation college student and the youngest child in the family. I have three sisters and had a brother (who passed away when I was 13 years old). My parents survived the Khmer Rouge regime. I believe that they worked hard to raise their children and were tremendously traumatized by the war. They are now both deceased; my dad passed away when I was nine years old, and my beloved mother left in March 2022 – they both died of complications from HIV/AIDS. 

Mom and I in Siemreap 2019. The last time I saw her in person.

Growing up, my siblings and I did not have a loving father or enough food in our home. We went through hardship and worked at any job that could fill our stomachs. One of the jobs we did was trash picking. I started working as a trash picker when I was 7. Back then, it was a typical job for many children in my village. My sister and I would get up around 4 am or 5 am and walk to the city looking for bottles and anything else that we could sell to the recycling company. Life as a trash picker was dangerous. My sister and I needed to protect ourselves from kidnappers and other people who wanted to hurt us. We were lucky to have always been safe from that danger.

First Performance – Age 14

 My life changed when I found Phare Ponleu Selpak Association. One sunny, hot morning, when I returned from work, a social worker from Phare came to my village and told us about Phare. She explained that Phare had a free school that was open to everyone. In addition to the regular school program, the students could also learn painting, music, circus, and dancing. More importantly, Phare provided lunch and gave us cookies every evening to take home. I was so happy when I heard about these free lunches and cookies. I was not interested in any activities except the food. From that day on, I went to Phare every morning after I got back from work.


When I was 13, I moved to live in Phare at the Childcare Center and decided to join the circus. With support from Phare and my family and by working hard in circus school, I became an international artist with Phare the Cambodian Circus.  I traveled around the world. With the money I earned from the circus tours, I was able to support my family, helping them improve their house and putting food on the table.

My performance in Sokha show. Photo credit: Peter Phoeng (2014)

However, I could only be a top-performing circus artist for a short time because of my body’s limitations. In 2009 I injured my wrist and realized I couldn’t continue performing forever. I started to think about my future after my artist’s life ended. As always, my mother’s advice to continue with education came to mind.

I had dreamed of studying abroad since 2009 when I injured my wrist. In 2010 after I finished high school, I went to the University of Management and Economics (UME) in Battambang, Cambodia, to study English for 2 years. Unfortunately, the school couldn’t meet my education needs and expectations. I became convinced that I could not get the education I wanted in Cambodia. This strengthened my dream of studying abroad. Also, I began to see that I would need to experience life outside the nest Phare had offered me as I had been working at the circus for almost half of my life. By 2013, I felt that the time for change had arrived, and I started looking for programs and sponsors but couldn’t find any. However, in early 2014 I found a sponsor who promised to help me achieve my college education dream in the US.

In November 2015, after touring in the US with the circus and checking around with my sponsor and the school in Madison, Wisconsin, I resigned from the Phare Circus, where I had been working for 3 years. It was hard to say goodbye to the team I had worked with for over 10 years. It was a huge decision to walk away from the only job I ever had in my life, a job that transformed my life. Even harder for me was to part from my family, my friends, and my beloved country. Nevertheless, I reasoned that I needed to follow up on this unique opportunity.

In April 2016, I used my life savings to buy an airplane ticket to the USA. I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, and settled in with my sponsor and his wife. In order to get ready for my college degree, I studied English intensively at MESLS (Madison English as a Secondary Language School) for 4 months.

After I finished the English language program, I was accepted and was about to start the courses at the community college in Madison, Wisconsin, when my sponsor had a change of heart. Because we could not reach an understanding on several issues, he told me that he could no longer support me and wanted me to return to Cambodia. Thankfully, I was able to find sponsors among my friends in Boston and Washington, DC. Edmond and Kunthary Degaiffier offered me board and lodging in their DC home, where I lived with them for 4 years. Lauren Shaw, Paul Feinberg, and friends offered to contribute towards my tuition and health insurance. We created a website to raise funds for covering tuition and fees at Montgomery College, Maryland (MC) located within commuting distance of Washington DC.

My graduation from MC, Spring 2020

Throughout my academic years at MC, I was fortunate to receive donations from friends who contributed to fundraising appeals so that I could continue my studies. I was able to contribute toward the total cost of my education with some of the money  I earned from my part-time on-campus job. I spent a total of 9 semesters at MC, starting from English as a second language (ESL) to Honors courses. I was invited to join the MC Renaissance scholar program, which opened doors for me to new opportunities, including a generous scholarship at Smith College to enable me to complete a bachelor’s degree. On May 22, 2020, I graduated from MC as an Honors Student.


In the summer of 2020, I moved out of my DC Home to begin my undergraduate program at Smith College. My life at Smith has been wonderful because, for once, I did not need to worry about my financial needs. Smith offered a generous scholarship package out of which I could rent a two-bedroom apartment where I have lived with a roommate, enjoying the college experience in the U.S. I have made many new friends with similar interests and outlooks on life. I appreciate the members of the Ada class community in which I served as a Social-Cochair, a Vice President, and briefly a Coordinator. I have created friendships and learned from their challenges. I am also a member of the Smith Conduct Board, a position I volunteered to join in the fall of 2021. I enjoy working with other Conduct Board members, with whom we hear cases and use the code of student conduct and the policies of the college to evaluate the cases brought before us. 

The academic experience has been challenging, but I have always enjoyed learning. I am lucky to have a mentor and host-father, Edmond, whose dedication is to helping me succeed; for him, I am grateful. This fall semester of 2022 is my last semester at Smith College. I am both excited to complete my degree and nervous about what the future might hold. For now, I aim to go to law school, which is not an easy road to navigate, but I am determined to make it happen.

Thank you for reading my story. Please also check out my Work Experience, Writing Samples & Blogpost. 

Fall 2020, my first semester at Smith College. Photo credit: Veronica Kessler. 

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Gallery Summer 2019

Gallery Summer 2018

Gallery of Photos of Phounam in Performance

Gallery of Other Photos of Phounam

(coming soon)

Gallery of Videos of Phounam in Circus and Dance Performance

Gallery of Videos of Phounam in Song Performance

Gallery of Videos of Phounam: Interviews and Miscellaneous