3 August 2022

Dara Sam’s journey of learning and personal discovery

People & Culture

Dara Sam came to New Zealand from Cambodia to advance his English language teaching skills but ended up on a life-changing journey of personal discovery.

Completing his Master of Arts in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington, Dara says he acquired knowledge and skills which will make a real difference to teaching colleagues at home, but it is New Zealand’s care for people and place which has fundamentally changed his approach to life.

Encouraged by friends and colleagues who had already studied here, Dara applied for a Manaaki New Zealand Scholarship to cover the cost of his 18-month stay and provide an opportunity he could never otherwise have experienced.

“They told me that New Zealand provides a world-class education and I found that out for myself,” he says. “But the experience proved to be so much more.

Now I am so much more confident and believe that I can do things I wouldn’t have considered before.”

Dara was working as an English teacher in Phnom Penh before coming to Wellington in early 2020. If he hadn’t come, he says he would probably have remained a teacher for the rest of his career. Instead, he landed a management role on his return as Vice Chief Academic Officer developing curriculum for the General English Programme for NTC Group, a company with 33 private schools, 600 English teachers, and almost 20,000 ESL students across Cambodia.

Prestige of New Zealand education

“There is a lot of prestige attached to an international education experience in New Zealand, especially if you have been awarded a scholarship to study. It shows that you are a capable person,” he says. “In South-East Asia, people look at you in a different way if you have studied overseas and you tend to have more career opportunities when you come back.”

Dara arrived in New Zealand just as the Covid-19 pandemic was sweeping the world. “I cannot express how grateful I am to the government for the care they showed the people. They treated international students and everybody else the same way. I felt like I was a New Zealander because I was treated so well.”

It was that sense of manaakitanga (care and respect) that left a lasting impression on Dara, and which has changed his outlook on life back in Cambodia. “I liked the way people treated one another, being sympathetic and wanting to understand each other better.

“In my new role I like to show sympathy and care towards the teachers. I have tried to make their lives easier by reducing the amount of time they have to spend on unnecessary administrative tasks. They seem much happier in their jobs now.”

The benefits of a less formal education environment in New Zealand also proved insightful for Dara and he has made changes to teaching methodologies in his schools, based on what he learned. “I now understand that people achieve more when they feel relaxed in their learning environment.

Making positive change in Cambodia

“Here in Cambodia, we have tended to stick to traditional teaching methods but in New Zealand I learned modern techniques which I am implementing, and which is making improvements in large communities of ESOL teachers here.”

“I realised that even small changes could make teaching and learning easier and create better outcomes.”

Dara says the value of international education in modernising and making positive change in developing countries cannot be overestimated. “When we have had an international education we can get the right job, get promoted, gain confidence and validation, and then we are in a position to make a difference.”

Keen to encourage other students to come to New Zealand, Dara has shared his experience with many of those he works with around the country and supports students with their scholarship applications.

He acknowledges how far he has come since arriving with much trepidation only two years ago.“I was a shy person, and I was nervous. But everyone was so kind and so chill.

“Coming to New Zealand has changed me completely. I am more confident and friendly now and I have become much more caring and understanding. That will be with me for the rest of my life,” he says. “I am proud of myself, and I am proud to bring a little bit of New Zealand back to Cambodia too.”

Share this story

Was this article valuable?

Keep being inspired!

Get new stories straight to your inbox