Southold native spends two years in Cambodia as Peace Corps volunteer

In 2016, Southold native Samantha Hokanson left the bright lights of New York to begin a journey across the globe.

She had never been to Cambodia. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the people she would live with in Svay Rieng Province, the southeasternmost province in the nation that borders Vietnam.

Ms. Hokanson, a 2009 Southold High School graduate who attended Fordham University, had been working in advertising in Manhattan — a “stereotypical soul-sucking job,” she said. At 25, she decided she needed a serious change. She had read “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” by Moritz Thompson, about a man who sells his pig farm to join the Peace Corps in the ’60s.

The memoir helped inspire her to begin a new chapter in her own life by joining the Peace Corps. 

“I think I was mostly looking for a challenge,” she said. “I felt like I was doing nothing good and that was really eating at me. I wanted to do something better to help other people. I also wanted an adventure, and I just wanted to do something crazy.” Now, at 27, after volunteering for two years in Cambodia, she’d returned to her hometown of Southold.

“I feel like I’m more of myself than I’ve ever been,” she said. “I think I grew into myself and I became more confident and resilient and just less afraid. Nothing scares me. I’m not afraid failure any more, and that used to be a huge fear of mine.”

Ms. Hokanson endured intensive language, cultural and technical training six days a week over two months in San Francisco, where she joined other volunteers bound for Cambodia. The training included life essentials such as how to eat, how to perform basic tasks like washing clothes by hand, showering with a bucket and ironing without electricity. She was sworn in as an official volunteer in September 2016 and was assigned to a village where she would live with a Cambodian host family and work independently.

A Peace Corps staff member drove her from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to the village where she would stay.

“They introduce you to your family, ‘This is your host mom, your host dad, here’s your bedroom and the bathroom,’ and then they kind of drive off. ‘We’ll talk to you in a month and see how you are,’ ” she said.

After arriving in Cambodia she began a crash course in the native language, Khmer, which she’d heard for the first time during training. Two hours after stepping off the plane in Cambodia — a 30-hour journey — she was already receiving language lessons.

“It was a lot,” she said. “It was very difficult language to learn.”

Her father, Richard Hokanson, said seeing his daughter learn a new language was “amazing.”

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I think that was the greatest thing, that she was able to learn that language so quickly.”

Her mother, Karen, said she wasn’t shocked that her daughter would pursue the challenge, but was naturally worried. 

“We’re just extremely proud,” she said. “It was more difficult than we could have ever imagined. She an extremely strong girl.”

As Ms. Hokanson settled into her new home, she began her primary job at a public high school, where she worked alongside four Cambodian English teachers, encouraging them to implement more student-centered learning techniques. She also worked on classroom management and on motivating the students to learn.

About 90 percent of the Cambodian students are the children of farmers, she said, and they expect their lives to follow a similar path.

“They don’t have the motivation to learn English, because they don’t even see it as possible for them to take it any further,” Ms. Hokanson said, adding that the cost of university is prohibitive for many.

Another pressing issue in the village that she helped tackle was garbage disposal. There was no garbage disposal management, she said, and trash would be floating in ponds.

“I’ve never seen so much garbage in my life,” she said. “So we built garbage incinerators, we got these big cages for recyclables for plastic and cans, and we did a lot of environmental education with the students.”

Environmental education was a part of Samantha Hokanson’s work in Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)

Another project that she worked on was a school garden to help tackle nutrition issues in Svay Rieng. 

“Cambodia has a big problem with malnutrition,” she said. “I think 35 percent of children under 5 years old are stunted either in height or weight.”

Peer educators taught students about vegetables and why it’s critical to eat them in addition to meat and rice. The students could bring the vegetables home from the garden after they were harvested.

The easiest adjustment for Ms. Hokanson was the physical part. Adjusting to the new culture and new life presented the greatest challenge, which is common for Peace Corps volunteers.

The group in Cambodia started with about 70 volunteers and, for various reasons, had dwindled down to 48 or 49 by the end, she said.

“Some people got sick and had to be separated, or some people — it’s too much, it’s a lot, they just wanted to go home,” she said.

She traveled on dirt roads with a bicycle and received a stipend that amounted to about $5 a day. The closest Peace Corps volunteers, with whom she met up once a month, were about 30 miles away.

“Of course, the beginning is that honeymoon phase where everything is so exciting and new. Then you get to your permanent village and you unpack your suitcase, and it’s like every insecurity and vulnerability you’ve ever had in your life is sitting on the table in front of you,” she said. “You have so much time alone in your own head; it took a lot to push yourself to get out of the room and just be among other people. It was hard to convey my emotions, because most of them have never left their village, or go further than hour away. So for them to understand what it’s like to be thrown into another culture is a lot. I didn’t expect them to understand, and I didn’t need them to. I knew I had to force myself to do that.”

During her two years with them, Ms. Hokanson grew extremely close to her Cambodian hosts, who became like a second family to her. She said that was the most rewarding part.

“Despite all of the differences that we have in culture, in language, in socioeconomic status, I feel just as close to them as I do anyone here,” she said. “I felt like they really knew me, and that’s just amazing to me that we were able to overcome all the differences and still make that bond. I miss them.”

In the age of smartphones, Ms. Hokanson maintains contact with her host family even now, back in Southold.

“Most people have smartphones, but at the same time, they don’t all have toilets,” she said. “So they’ll have the latest iPhone but not have anywhere to go to the bathroom. So it’s this really weird dichotomy.”

Ms. Hokanson hopes to return to Cambodia in two or three years to attend her host sister’s wedding.

She also hopes to continue practicing Cambodian values, such as the importance of family. There, she said, family comes before anything else. 

“They really are, when I look at Cambodian people as a whole, a lot happier than people here,” she said. “I think they just value community more than we do. 

Reflecting on her experience, Ms. Hokanson said she couldn’t change a village single-handedly, but she helped empower other individuals. That’s how she gauges her success. When she would see a student throw garbage in the trash rather than on the ground, that was success. 

“Success looks very different in that situation than it would at a job here,” she said.

Now that she’s back in New York, she hopes to return to Manhattan and work for a nonprofit or non-governmental organization or possibly pursue photography. 

She said the people she met gave her more than she could have given to them. The support from her family at home also made it possible.

“I feel so lucky that they were so supportive in letting me do that,” she said. “That’s just how I feel coming out of this, that I’m the luckiest person in the world, for so many reasons.”

Photo caption: Samantha Hokanson in Cambodia. (Courtesy photo)