Geography Students Spend Winter Break in Cambodia

Students explore Bayon Temple

While winter break sent scores of college students scrambling for the comforts of home, UMW geography major Brian Brown spent his winter break out of the country for the very first time.  He was one of seven UMW seniors in Cambodia as part of a three-and-a-half week study abroad program with Associate Professor of Geography Donald Rallis and Assistant Dean of Academic Services Amber Huffman, who is a geography graduate of UMW. The students chronicled their journeys through blog posts and social media, like Brown’s description of his arrival in the country:

A pop sounded from the rear of the car.  The driver slowly pulled off the dusty and dark avenue to assess the situation.  A haze hung in the air, tinted blue by a sign for a cheap hotel.  The back tire was flat.  I waited, watching motorcycles drift by at a carefree pace, while my first Cambodian acquaintance worked to get us back on the road.

Hannah Carloni and Brian Brown on the boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

The winter break program, offered for the first time at Mary Washington, is one of only a few of its kind in the country, according to Rallis. Students on the trip will earn credit for a Geographic Study Abroad course toward the requirements for the geography major.

The group arrived in Phnom Penh on December 19, toured towns and villages, attended meetings with the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and learned firsthand about the challenges of rural life in the Southeast Asian country.

And the students know no better travel expert and cultural guide than Rallis, who has logged 14 trips to Cambodia and countless others around the world.

“This isn’t just an opportunity to go to Cambodia as a trip but to spend it learning from someone who has spent his whole life engaged in other cultures,” said Brown, who plans to write an honors thesis this semester based on his research in the country.

With the trip at its end – the program officially ended January 11 – Brown said he was most impressed by the Cambodian people he has met.

“Professor Rallis has given us chances throughout the whole trip to engage with other Cambodians one on one,” he said.

Students try their hands at harvesting rice in Takeo Province

The students met with a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide who now serves as director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

“Collecting documents to unmask the horrors of Cambodia’s past was Mr. Chhang’s ‘one thing’,” student Hannah Carloni wrote in her blog. “He urged us to find our one thing, make it small, and nurture it.”

For Casey Custer, an international affairs major, the whole experience was eye-opening.

“I have learned to try more things, open my mind up to new experiences and to embrace the unknown,” she said, noting she has gained a new respect for the Cambodian people.

Traveling with his students also provided Rallis with a unique perspective.

“It is immensely rewarding, and more than a little humbling, to see students so engaged, interested and motivated,” Rallis recently posted on Facebook. “I am learning a lot more from them than they are from me. Trade secret: this is what makes teaching so worthwhile.”


To read the students’ blogs or to view pictures from the trip, visit and

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.