Northeastern co-op is a teacher, mentor, big sister and friend to 25 young women in a Cambodian dormitory

Cambodian women sitting in a classroom working on laptops.
Cecilia Doherty, a rising third-year behavioral neuroscience student at Northeastern University, teaches young Cambodian women, participants of the Harpswell Foundation women’s leadership program, as a part of her co-op in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Courtesy photo

Cecilia Doherty grew up in a typical Boston suburb and considers herself adventurous. So two things were very important to her when considering colleges.

They needed to have lots of opportunities to study abroad, and experiential learning needed to be a priority.

Northeastern University checked both of those boxes.

Still, the third-year behavioral neuroscience student admits she was a little nervous sitting on the longest flight of her life, traveling to her first co-op in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Waiting for her was a six-month co-op with the Harpswell Foundation women’s leadership program.

“I’m gonna be away from my family, from my friends, from the place I called home for so long,” she thought.

When the plane landed, she was eager to get her bags.

“I was so anxious because I knew I was about to walk out of the doors and meet some of the students I was going to be working with,” Doherty says.

A few young Cambodian women, participants in the program, were waiting for her outside the airport with a small sign: “Cecilia, welcome to Harpswell.”

They were kind, Doherty says, and excited to meet her.

“It was so nice to have such a warm welcome,” she says. “That made my nerves settle down a lot.”

One of two leadership residents, Doherty is a teacher, mentor, big sister and friend to 25 young women who live in one of the two Harpswell dormitories in Phnom Penh while attending different universities in the city.

The idea for the Harpswell Foundation originated almost 20 years ago when Alan Lightman, a writer, a physicist and a professor, met a young Cambodian professional named Veasna Chea while visiting the country. 

As a student, Chea had to live in a six-foot crawl space underneath her university with six other female students. At the time, schools in Cambodia did not provide dormitories for their students and it was difficult for single females who were away from their families to find a place to live.

The foundation built its first dormitories in 2006, followed by a second one in 2009. Each year, the dormitories house up to 76 Cambodian female university students for free.

Harpswell considers its dormitories to be leadership accelerators for the students, where they receive intensive training in critical thinking, analytical writing, debate and civic engagement. Students study English and digital literacy to be competitive in the global economy. 

Doherty was given a curriculum for two core classes she would be teaching — analytical writing skills and job skills. She also leads two critical thinking sessions per week where students take turns researching, presenting and analyzing current events. 

The topics range from politics to pop culture, Doherty says, and one of the goals is to enhance English comprehension and conversational language skills.

“I noticed improvements in their English, in particular the younger students, after being here for four months,” she says. “When I first arrived they couldn’t really speak to me, they could only really communicate with a smile or a wave.”

Now these students can hold proper conversations, which Doherty finds very rewarding to see.

Outside of the classes, she also does social and cultural activities with the students. In August, they took a trip to one of Cambodia’s national parks, staying in the homes of local villagers. It was nice to see a Cambodian way of life outside the capital, Doherty says.

Most recently, the dorm had a big Halloween party with decorations, lights, costumes, face paint, scary music and candy.

I noticed improvements in their English, in particular the younger students, after being here for four months. When I first arrived they couldn’t really speak to me, they could only really communicate with a smile or a wave.

Cecilia Doherty, a third-year behavioral neuroscience student at Northeastern

On another occasion, Doherty wanted to show the students how to cook a shepherd’s pie when she realized that there were no ovens in the dormitory kitchen. Thinking on her feet, she used a skillet to cook the pie on the stovetop. The students helped her make mashed potatoes and chop ingredients. 

Ovens aren’t the only things missing from the dorms. There’s also no air conditioning or hot water, and the power also goes out sometimes. Clothes are washed by hand, Doherty says.

“I think that even a few years ago I couldn’t do something like that,” she says. “But this is me now. It’s just as fine as putting my clothes in the washing machine.”

On her days off, Doherty says, she tries to recharge. She journals, takes yoga classes or hangs out at her favorite coffee shop. She has met new friends outside Harpswell.

Doherty says the experience has taught her that by putting herself in a new, uncertain situation, she was able to learn more about herself, her values and aspirations.

“I sort of can look introspectively and think, ‘OK, if I can pick up and move across the world and form a life here, and do this role, I can rely on myself that I will be able to pick myself up and find myself in any role in any space,’” she says. 

Her advice to students hesitant about doing a global co-op is to just go for it.

“I will hold this experience very close to my heart for the rest of my life,” she says. “It’s absolutely priceless to me, and I’m so glad I made this decision.”

Alëna Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @AlenaKuzub.