Northeastern students building relationships and skills while mentoring young women in Cambodia

Madison McDougall and Yueting Lu standing at the front of a room full of people in Cambodia
Northeastern University co-op students Madison McDougall and Yueting Lu in Cambodia

Leading a women’s college dormitory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, may not be the typical place you’d find a third-year neuroscience and pre-med student like Northeastern’s Yueting Lu. 

“The more traditional track is typically doing research for a co-op and maybe doing clinical for another co-op,” Lu said. 

But Lu “wouldn’t trade (her experience) for the world.”

“I think it’s been such an interesting opportunity for me to experience a different culture, for me to meet so many incredible people who are working in a lot of those spaces I care about, like health and development,” Lu said. “It’s different from my peers but I’m glad I can have this experience.”

Lu’s colleague, Northeastern student Madison McDougall, also differentiated her experience in the dorm from her friends’ co-ops.

“I think that this job doesn’t focus on a single Excel spreadsheet is the biggest difference in my mind,” said McDougall, who is studying international affairs and environmental studies.

Lu and McDougall are leadership residents at Harpswell, a foundation that provides dormitories for young women from the Cambodian provinces who are attending university in Phnom Penh. In this role, the Northeastern students live in the dorms and mentor and facilitate leadership training for the young women: serving as everything from yoga teachers, to English tutors, to speech-and-debate coaches, to discussion leaders on current events. 

“Every day is different,” McDougall said. “Something I really wanted was not to work a 9-to-5 office job; I have the rest of my life to do that.”

Lu and McDougall said they were each attracted to the co-op because of their belief in educational accessibility.

McDougall was able to attend a program for students with learning disabilities as a youngster, and said she “would not be where I am without it.”

“Somebody gave me a shot,” McDougall said. 

Meanwhile, Lu said her grandparents and great-grandparents were not always given access to education in China, where Lu grew up. (She now lives in Sarasota, Florida.) 

“I’m also interested in gender equity and feminism and also public health,” Lu said. “So I felt this was a perfect place to explore those interests—Cambodia is of course recovering from a very brutal genocide, so those areas of education accessibility, gender equity and public health are still developing and rapidly changing, so that’s very exciting.”

Madison McDougall and Yueting Lu posing arm in arm
Northeastern University co-op students Madison McDougall and Yueting Lu at a women’s dormitory run by the Harpswell Foundation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

They both also wanted something unique in a co-op.

“To study abroad and share your culture and experience another culture is invaluable,” Lu said. “Even if it’s not super related to your major or future plans, it’s definitely worth it.”

Not that there hasn’t been a bit of culture shock. 

With the main mode of transportation in Phnom Penh being tuktuks —which McDougall described as “a go-cart on three wheels”—and very little greenspace in the city, the two students said they missed Boston and its trees and parks, Centennial Quad and even the T.

“You can’t really walk anywhere (in Phnom Penh), I’m very excited to have the T again,” McDougall said, … although she admitted, “I will get back and be complaining about it in a week.”

But these are surmountable obstacles for the two students, easily outweighed by the experiences that both envision shaping their futures.

McDougall said she would like to work in the international nonprofit sector or in the Foreign Service. She feels that lessons she has learned about everything from the importance of speaking the local language to the role of first-world countries in development projects has given her unique insight. 

“I hope that people when they see Cambodia, they see a lot more than Angkor Wat and Pol Pot,” McDougall said. “Cambodia and the Cambodian people are so much more than that.”

For Lu, Cambodia’s public health programs may lack the medical resources of the United States, but the country is creative. 

“What I’ve found interesting is how medical care is provided here in arguably what is quite a medically poor-resourced location,” Lu said. “As I plan to pursue medical school and plan to work in the health-care field, I hope to bring some of what I’ve learned about cultural awareness and cultural competence and also innovative ways to bring care to populations who aren’t able to access healthcare as easily.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter@MoultonCyrus.

Sadly, a student at the dorm has recently died, and Lu and McDougall are raising money for her family to help pay funeral expenses and remaining medical costs. For more information and to offer donations, please visit the GoFundMe page.