Cambodian first-generation student shares journey of triumph through self-doubt

Published by Rachel Arceo on

Imagine moving to a country you’ve mainly known from movies in order to live with your spouse.  You are on the other side of the world far from everyone and everything you have known.  You think you know the language, that is until you are drowning in native speakers and find that you are ill-prepared, both for the language and the culture shock. UCC student Sophavid Choum-Starkey knows this struggle first-hand. 

Sophavid Choum-Starkey can be regularly seen using the TRIO study room at UCC to focus on homework.
Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream

“When I first came here, I thought I had ok English,” says AAOT student Sophavid Choum-Starkey (pronounced so-pah-vid) in her distinct but clear Cambodian accent. She laughs as she shakes her head, “It turns out not good enough for work or conversation.” This meant Choum-Starkey was confined to her new home, too shy and embarrassed of her struggle with the language and deprived of the social interaction that she was raised in.  

“I felt so bad. I knew the only thing I could do to get better was go back to school,” Choum-Starkey says. So she applied to UCC. 

Choum-Starkey is a 2019 graduate of the Woolley Center’s GED and English Language Acquisition program. She has now transferred to UCC with a general studies focus and an emphasis on data science. She has maintained a 4.0 GPA and earned an invitation in 2021 to UCC’s chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, all in a language she is still actively trying to master.  

Reaching her present success has been a journey from struggle to confidence as a student of English and member of American culture.   

Online game opens up new world 

“I met my husband almost 15 years ago on an online game,” Choum-Starkey says. The game was offered by Facebook when it first started; players, through virtual lives, could meet other players from around the world. Choum-Starkey enjoyed playing a game where she could virtually live in her own apartment.    

“Online created another world for me, ‘like, oh, I can have my own place,’” Choum-Starkey says. 

“It’s silly, but where I’m from, that’s not something we have, our own personal bedrooms,” says Choum-Starkey. It is common for families in Cambodia to maintain all the beds in the same room, with parents and children regularly sharing space.   

Sophavid Choum-Starkey smiles at her short, sweet wedding to Guy Starkey.
Photo provided by Sophavid Choum-Starkey

In 2016, after years of a long-distance friendship, Choum-Starkey platonically visited her now husband after a work trip brought her to the United States. Upon her return home, Choum-Starkey was surprised by Starkey’s marriage proposal.   

“He thought it was a slim chance I would say yes, but he went for it anyway,” Choum-Starkey says. “He was somebody I trusted. I felt safe and could share everything with him. Feeling safe with him is what allowed me to make this big decision and think ‘yes, I can live with him as a husband, as a soul mate.’   

“At this age it’s not about youngster love, or attractiveness; it’s about if that person can help you through thick and thin, help you with that emotional support; that is what you need as you are getting older,” Choum-Starkey says. 

She did agree to the proposal and began the immigration process that would take two more years.  

The Starkeys were married in 2018 in a short 10-minute Las Vegas ceremony with three others in attendance, including cousins who lived in New York. “I blinked and it was over,” Choum-Starkey says with a light laugh. 

This was very different than the weddings she was accustomed to in Cambodia. “Where I’m from, weddings are at least half a day long with a minimum of a hundred people,” Choum-Starkey says. 

Coping with culture shock 

Choum-Starkey had been living with her sister, brother-in-law, nephew, mom and aunt in Cambodia before moving to Roseburg. “My family is my backbone of support,” Choum-Starkey says as she reflects on her loved ones still in Cambodia.   

“I am lucky my parents are so caring, kind and devoted to their children, although they never had a formal education,” Choum-Starkey says. Her father learned to read and write from a monk in exchange for work at the temple, and her mother also had limited primary school. 

Choum-Starkey learned from her parents and culture how to care about the group dynamic first. 

“If I am having a bad feeling, I don’t want that to radiate to others. Instead I smile; that’s contagious,” Choum-Starkey says. “That was part of the culture shock I experienced, that individualism versus collectivism. I was taught to think about others first, and when I got here it was ‘me first’. 

“(In Cambodia) we don’t talk about feelings,” Choum-Starkey says. “We are told to hide everything and bear it. It’s a lot of culture shock, people talking about their feelings like ‘I’m feeling frustrated, blah, blah, blah.’ 

“That affected my mental health trying to be like American students. It was hard, but now I realize I don’t have to be the same. I can be the way I am; I don’t have to be assertive to fit in. I now know I can be honest about being different,” Choum-Starkey says. 

Facing fears, finding salvation in continued education 

Part of Choum-Starkey’s mental health struggles were that she spent her earlier months in the U.S. feeling insecure and confined to her home without the comfort of a large extended family.  

“I was scared and there was an ocean of fear I felt I was drowning in every day,” Choum-Starkey says as she recalls this time. Eventually, she looked into the E.L.A classes available at UCC and was able to joint enroll in Woolley’s G.E.D program. 

Another concern for Choum-Starkey was her parents in Cambodia. In Cambodia, social-welfare programs such as social security do not exist; usually, parents expect to be cared for by their children as they age. Choum-Starkey was her parents primary caregiver before moving to the United States.  

Choum-Starkey enjoys a moment with her ELA instructor, Teresa Toller, and her late mother.
Photo provided by Sophavid Choum-Starkey

Fortunately, when Choum-Starkey began her college education, she received support, encouragement and blessing from all her immediate family. Her sister and her brother-in-law took over the caregiving of their parents so she can afford the cost of living and education here. 

Choum-Starkey now understands the difficulty she had heard about with Americans getting limited financial support. “Living in the U.S., you either have to be rich, or very poor; if you are barely above that threshold, you won’t get help,” Choum-Starkey says.   

Although Choum-Starkey and her husband make modest incomes, she does not qualify for the Pell Grant or other federal grants; this is frustrating to her as she could not afford to be a full-time student. “It has prolonged my education,” Choum-Starkey says. 

Choum-Starkey also admits to the difficulty of going to school in a language that she is still learning. Her earlier English education was fraught with many mistakes she would eventually have to unlearn because she originally learned English from a local Cambodian teacher and not a native speaker.  

Now Choum-Starkey loves writing in English, a fact that she learned in her term writing for The Mainstream although she admits to more comfort with numbers.  

Choum-Starkey intends to major in data science. “It has a lot of numbers and programming; I use less English,” Choum-Starkey laughs. 

Feeling seen 

Many instructors and advisors take notice of Choum-Starkey’s work ethic and dedication from her involvement in UCC’s Transfer Opportunity Program, to a work-study position with UCC’s Communications and Marketing office, to an officer position with Phi-Theta Kappa. “Avid (Sophavid) is very hard-working and often asks insightful questions that elevate the classroom discussion,” physics associate professor Mick Davis writes. 

Marguerite Garrison celebrates the graduation of her ELA and GDE student, Sophavid Choum-Starkey while holding a Cambodian flag print.
Photo provided by Sophavid Choum-Starkey

Even the former coordinator of UCC’s E.L.A. program, Marguerite Garrison, showed up to Choum-Starkey’s G.E.D graduation to congratulate and honor the unique student. “Marguerite said she normally doesn’t attend the ceremonies but was proud that I did both programs at the same time,” Choum-Starkey says. 

When Choum-Starkey was invited to the induction ceremony of Phi-Theta Kappa Honors Society, an organization offered to students with 3.5 and above, she was filled with pride. 

She beams as she says, “It was more than happy. I was thinking ‘oh, wow, this is great! You are being seen.’” 

Progress in the journey 

Choum-Starkey admits to mental health struggles along the way, but she found some light in asking for help from UCC Wellness Counselor Hanna Culbertson, who gave Choum-Starkey healthy coping tools she uses still. 

“When I was in the dark, I overlooked the support I had and continue to have,” Choum-Starkey says. 

“Life is a journey of learning,” Choum-Starkey says. “You have to embrace both the positive and the negative. I appreciate any progress. 

Sophavid and her English Language Acquisition classmates show off their country of origin provided by UCC Communication and Marketing Office.
Photo provided by Sophavid Choum-Starkey

 “I learned it’s okay to be rejected; you are not going to be liked by everyone,” Choum-Starkey says with a subtle smile and a shake of her head. 

“I know what I cannot do, so I have given up the ego; I won’t feel shame in asking for help when I need it. There are people who know more than me, so I will ask for help so they can share their knowledge. I cannot do this alone.”  

Choum-Starkey acknowledges that asking for help may put students in the position of being judged, especially at risk for self-judgment, but it opens up an opportunity to learn. “I ask for help and, if they are open to help, I am grateful, and if they are not, I will find another resource.” 

“There are plenty of resources on campus, our instructors, our peers, tutors. They can help you if you ask, but you have to be willing to do the work,” Choum-Starkey says. 

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