Growing up in the Kandal Province outside of the hustling and bustling of Phnom Penh, most children were gripped by the harsh reality of pursuing one of two unfortunate pathways- either becoming a factory worker joining the 1 in 10 children above the age of seven engaged in child domestic labor or to adopt the scavenger lifestyle of rummaging through dumps seeking out anything and everything that could hold redeeming value. Yet, for Serey Roth, she was fortunate enough to be offered a different reality. Raised by two hard working farmers, her parents valued education despite not having any degrees themselves. While most of the other parents in her village pulled their children out of school to work, her parents continually supported her ambitions. Her parents grew up during the era of the Khmer Rouge in which the sophisticated and educated were discriminated against and murdered. Yet, her parents found solace in having their daughter combat those ideals and pursue the dreams they could not have imagined.
When Roth decided to continue her education, her parents helped her to buy a bicycle so that she could attend the nearest high school. For the following three years, Roth rode 30 kilometers a day to school so that she could learn, grow, and soak in all the knowledge she possibly could. Eventually, her hard work paid off as she received a scholarship to Royale University in Phnom Penh and became the first person in her family to go to university. Her life in Phnom Penh was met with many challenges. As she balanced jobs with a rigorous school schedule, her family fell into a dark season when her oldest sister fell ill and her younger brother was arrested. Her brother had been involved with the wrong group of friends and began experimenting with drugs. For five months, Roth visited her brother in jail providing him with food and bringing him books so his knowledge could expand. Her family was forced to sell their land and Roth had to take on more hours at work in order to pay for her sister’s hospital bills and for her brother’s lawyer fees.
Nonetheless, Roth persevered. She admitted, “Not many people know about my life struggles. I do not want to complain and for people to feel pity on me or my family. Even though my life has been met with many problems, I have always had a good concept at finding a solution.” And Roth surely found a solution to every obstacle. She finished third in her bachelors degree of Philosophy, received a job in Siem Reap teaching Morality, and was offered a scholarship to continue her studies in a Masters of Philosophy.
For the following three years, Roth taught at a rural school outside of Siem Reap and traveled every weekend to Phnom Penh to complete her Masters in Philosophy. Whether she was on a night bus or on the back of a motorbike, every somewhat ‘free’ moment was filled with studying. To make matters more difficult, almost all the money she earned from teaching was spent on transportation costs to Phnom Penh. So why do it? “I look at my mom and I admire her so much. Instead of sending her children to work in the factory like most families in my area do, she worked in the factory herself. Even in her old age. And I am so thankful for that and so I will pursue any opportunity I can.”
As of January 2019, Roth finished her Masters in Philosophy first in her class. In her ‘newly found’ free time, Roth dedicates her time to being a volunteer gender equity coach with the organization, Kids Play International. Roth stated, “When our headmaster presented us with the information about the program starting, I followed him to his car after. I told him, I may not have sports experience but this is an organization that aligns with my heart and beliefs.” And today, one can either find Roth teaching Morality to the future generation of the Ang Chagn Chass village or on the field as a Kids Play International Coach promoting gender equity and revealing the endless opportunities that can be unleashed with hard work, passion, and determination. Roth’s simple contagious, uplifting, and peppy attitude ostensibly masks the triumph over the gritty existence of her past but it reveals the reality of many Khmer people- most seemingly ordinary people possess an extraordinary story of resilience.