Empowering Cambodian women–and themselves

Danielle Moore and Kristen Paonessa knew they wanted to do a cubicle-free international co-op that enabled them to apply their skills, and fulfill their passion for empowering women. But they didn’t know that their experience working for the Harpswell Foundation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, would, in turn, empower them.

Since July, they have been providing supplementary education — English language classes, leadership training and current-event discussions — to young women from rural Cambodia who are attending universities in the capital city.

One of their ongoing projects has been to help organize Harpswell’s first conference, “Women Innovators in Cambodia,” taking place on January 22, 2011. Six Cambodian women from the medical field, the arts and social entrepreneurship will discuss the challenges and successes of being an ambitious woman in Cambodia.

Moore and Paonessa, who won Presidential Global Scholar awards from Northeastern to support their co-op, are serving as leadership residents in one of the two women’s dormitories built by the foundation in Phnom Penh.

They also had the opportunity to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Cambodia while on a tour of Asia. Clinton summoned a Town Hall meeting for the country’s youth and asked the U.S. ambassador to invite 50 Harpswell students, and their leadership residents.

Both Northeastern students say they have gained insight into themselves and their future careers by upholding the mission of the Harpswell Foundation to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and throughout the developing world.

“Convincing the women of (their equality) is also convincing me of the strength I have as a woman and what I could be back home in the States,” said Paonessa, an international affairs major and economics minor.

She said the experience has helped her cultivate her leadership skills and made her realize that she wants to pursue a career that will allow her to impact people’s lives on a daily basis.

Moore, a dual major in human services and international affairs with a minor in Spanish, said it is “very fulfilling to feel as though Harpswell’s mission is being carried out each and every day and we’re contributing to that.”

The co-op is providing Moore with a glimpse into what her chosen career path — to work in conflict and disaster situations — might be like.

As the first American students and first Northestern co-ops to work for the Harpswell Foundation, they are also helping to forge a global partnership.

“They are both so smart and dedicated,” said Harpswell’s founding director, Alan Lightman. “They have really done a superb job. I’m really delighted with the co-op program at Northeastern, and the opportunity to have two star students working at Harpswell.”