From Cambodia to Kendall College — Sokha Chen’s Inspiring Path to Success

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Sokha Chen receives her award certificate from Brad Graham, KCT Scholarship Committee Chair.

Sokha Chen spent her early years in Cambodia as an orphan scavenging to survive, but her life’s journey has brought her to Kendall College, a destination that’s gifted her with a new excitement for the future — both for her and for those who find themselves up against the odds.

Sokha says her world shattered at age 6 when her parents died, and “life was completely tough.”

Her situation only worsened after she and her sister went to live at an uncle’s home in the countryside, where they were forced to do backbreaking work for almost four years.

Desperate for a change, the girls fled back to Phnom Penh. “My sister worked at the dump at night and I worked at daytime,” Sokha recalls, explaining together the two would trade off caring for another younger sister. “We could not attend school.”

But education was the least of Sokha’s concerns at the time since she and her siblings could barely feed themselves. “The wastes that people threw away were so priceless to us because that was how we earned money and lived our lives day to day, year to year,” she says. “Our lives were empty, hopeless, useless, and uneducated.”

“The KCT scholarship assists covering my college tuition, and that allows me more time and energy to concentrate on my studies,” says Sokha of the generous grant. “It is a huge piece which helps finish my puzzle and creates a dynamic foundation for supporting my success of higher education and completing a bachelor’s degree.”

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Sokha’s life changed forever at 13 after a chance meeting with Chicago-based Bill Smith, a longtime photographer for the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls. Smith and his wife, who were traveling in Asia, had been so moved by the poverty they saw in Cambodia that they adopted a baby from an orphanage in the country, started a group called A New Day Cambodia and opened a center that provides shelter, food and education to impoverished children. Smith met Sokha, and remembers her as someone with a “burning desire to study.”

Dr. Terry Light, an orthopedic surgeon who is affiliated with Loyola University Medical Center and other hospitals, read an article about “A New Day Cambodia” in the Chicago Tribune — and realized that he had met and talked to Smith at numerous Blackhawks games. Inspired, Dr. Light eventually traveled to Cambodia and sponsored Sokha in Smith’s program; he now provides some financial support for her at Kendall, which she and her sister Channa decided to attend after taking a tour of the school during a 2016 visit.

These days, Sokha, who appeared in Girl Rising, a documentary about girls living in poverty around the globe, is busy studying hospitality and hotel management and also works in the college’s events department. She has received a two-year scholarship from the Kendall College Trust, which will pay for eight quarters at the college.

“It’s exciting for us to profoundly change a student’s life and see our mission realized through promising recipients like Sokha,” says Kendall College Trust executive director, Catherine De Orio.

“The KCT scholarship assists covering my college tuition, and that allows me more time and energy to concentrate on my studies,” says Sokha of the generous grant. “It is a huge piece which helps finish my puzzle and creates a dynamic foundation for supporting my success of higher education and completing a bachelor’s degree.”

And, she adds, the Kendall College Trust has gifted her “great opportunities” to get real world experience, such as when she helped at KCT’s popular annual event Fried Chicken & Champagne Fest. “I understood sales and marketing better.”

That hands-on learning extends to Kendall College’s many chances for students to get out and about in Chicago’s cutting-edge hospitality scene.

“It is so amazing that we all have the opportunity to tour so many hotels in Chicago,” said Sokha. “I have learned so much.”

Her favorite part of the educational experience at Kendall, however, has been becoming a part of the hardworking and passionate group of students who share her same interests.

“This is the most incredible thing about hospitality — meeting and having so many international friends from around the world,” she says.

While Sokha notes she and her sisters once managed to subsist off “terrible and unhealthy food” people threw away, she’s now in a position to entertain her “big dream” of becoming the general manager of a hotel in Cambodia and, eventually, owning a resort of her own — a goal achievable thanks to her studies at Kendall College.

“I am just an orphan, but I have accomplished many things, because I have strong passions and commitments about my future,” she says. “I want every girl and boy to try their best to reach their goals, dream big and do not be afraid to fail.”

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