Member Article

Building Research Capacity

Cindy Lahar with two children
Cindy J. Lahar received the Fulbright Scholar Lecture/Research Award to Cambodia, where she worked at the Royal University of Phnom Penh from January through August 2004. Lahar was named a Carnegie Scholar for 2003-2004 and works with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s hearing little of American bombs falling in southeast Asia or of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. I did learn a lot in a fine American school system in my middle-class suburban world, but no one talked to us about the Khmer Rouge – or maybe I wasn’t listening. Wars on the other side of the globe and genocidal regimes didn’t seem to affect me.

But now they do. I visited Cambodia first while on holiday in early 1999 and since then have become fascinated, and horrified, by both the history and the current situation of this small southeast Asia nation. Cambodia is an amazing country with beautiful and happy people, a spectacular landscape, and extreme suffering, corruption, and poverty. The saddest part of Cambodia’s history occurred in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime caused the death of millions of Cambodians. The first to die were the educated people: the teachers, the doctors and the clergy. Today Cambodia is still rebuilding after the traumatic and widespread destruction of its infrastructure by the Khmer Rouge.

What this means now is that there are few people who can teach, especially at the university level. As for the university instructors, they are trained at best with a master’s degree and more typically with a bachelor’s degree from the very institution at which they teach. It is because of Cambodia’s dire need to fill the substantial gaps in human capacity (Turton, 2000) that I was asked to help build research capacity as part of my Fulbright work. I thus left for Cambodia with a mission: to provide social science research training and consult with the psychology department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, or RUPP (Read a profile of RUPP on Page 18). With that agenda and my own research plans, I arrived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, at the beginning of 2004.

Lahar teaches a workshop
Lahar teaches an ethics workshop to teh social sciences department heads at the Royal University of Phnom Pehn.

To work in Cambodia is more than simply going back in time: Rooms with lights, fans, and wooden chairs with attached desks are the extent of the technology in the classrooms at RUPP. I’ve always enjoyed teaching in technology-enhanced learning environments, but now I can also manage in classrooms that have no technology at all. Many days during the dry hot season – when the river is too low to create enough electricity for the city – we were lucky to have electricity through the day to run lights and fans.

Yet despite the heat and the simple facilities, the faculty members that attended my workshops were hungry for new skills. During those first few months, I developed and taught a workshop in qualitative research methods and produced a set of accompanying reading materials, since published by RUPP in both English and Khmer. I also offered other workshops in ethics and IRB development, among others. Working with these highly motivated individuals was a joy, and much of my time was spent consulting on numerous grant proposals and research projects across a range of disciplines which allowed me to learn about a variety of issues important to Cambodians today.

Royal University of Phnom Penh

Royal University of Phnom Penh Department of Psychology logo
Department of Psychology…/psych/psych.html

The department of psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, or RUPP, is the only psychology department in Cambodia. The department is one of nine in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at RUPP, the oldest and the largest institution of higher education in Cambodia.

Background and History

RUPP began as the Royal Khmer University in 1960. The university became Phnom Penh University in 1970 with the establishment of the Khmer Republic, which overthrew the Cambodian monarchy and commenced a period of political and social disruption. The period of 1975-1979 saw the closure and destruction of schools and the cessation of formal education. All educational institutions were closed down and most of the university’s faculty were killed along with other educated people all over the country. Deserted for almost five years, the campus became yet another victim of the grim civil war. In 1980 the university reopened and slowly began to rebuild. Priority was put to training teachers, and in 1998, training colleges merged and the Royal University of Phnom Penh was created. Since then, RUPP has grown to include the Faculty of Science, The Institute of Foreign Languages, the planned Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center, and the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. There are now over 6,000 students at RUPP, located in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh.

Department Mission

The department of psychology offers a bachelor of arts in psychology, with an aim to provide “solid educational training in psychology for individuals who want to alleviate the many social and mental health problems particularly relevant to Cambodia.” Given Cambodia’s recent traumatic history of war, political transition, natural disasters, and rapid economic change, there is a high rate of people requiring psychological assistance. As a result, there is a great demand for people trained in psychology in both rural and city areas.

Current proposals under development by department research teams include: developing programs to reduce drug use among Cambodian youth; PTSD, stress, and other traumatic effects of the Khmer Rouge era; influences of global mass media on a developing Cambodia; and prosocial behavior among Khmer, as related to forms and motivations of volunteerism.


The department has granted approximately 20 bachelor’s degrees each year since 1998. Many graduates work in non-government organizations or government areas such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, where their research training is highly valued. Some graduates continue their studies in the Faculty of Pedagogy and become teachers (half of the current faculty received diplomas or certificates from this unit). Of course, graduates also find work as counselors at mental health clinics and schools, rehabilitation centers, and in social services.


The department’s resources are extremely limited. The department has a small library for students and faculty with approximately 300 books – the majority of which are outdated text editions. The department also has a computer donated by Maryknoll NGO for faculty and student use. Recent donations have allowed for this computer to be connected to the Internet.

University faculty at RUPP receive the government wage of $45 US per month. There are no merit considerations, no pay increases – simply $45 per month. University teachers can’t live on the government wages and must find ways to supplement their salaries; as a result, department offices are often empty, because faculty arrive only to teach a class and then must leave for their other jobs. I was initially quite surprised to find that the psychology department research meetings were always on Saturday mornings, but soon I realized that it was necessary to accommodate the other jobs faculty hold. I can’t imagine asking my colleagues in the United States to come to Saturday morning research meetings each week.

At RUPP, the faculty and the administration know that one of the only ways to keep people at the university is to have them engaged in funded research projects. Certain departments are starting to secure funding for their work, enabling faculty to work at the university. For example, the tourism and the environmental science departments are having funding success and consequently are thriving at the university. By developing fundable research plans and proposals in psychology, we hope to see a thriving atmosphere in that department soon.

My work with the psychology department was focused on initiating research plans, and in this vein we developed departmental research teams skilled at answering applied questions and preparing fundable research proposals. One of these projects will explore the increasing drug use among young Cambodians today, with a goal of establishing some context-appropriate treatment options. Another team chose to focus on volunteerism, a topic that grew from the research I was doing at RUPP. My interest in cross-cultural explorations of volunteerism began more than three years ago with funding from Miyazaki International College in Japan (my institution at that time) and I was able to get it underway with the Fulbright award and the opportunity to work in Cambodia.

What I have learned thus far is that the very concept of volunteerism – smahk-jeut in Khmer – can be different for a Cambodian as compared to perspectives from Japan and North America. For example, although the notion of volunteer work being unpaid is universal, it is not a necessary ingredient in defining the volunteer in Cambodia. Foreign volunteers who often are paid have been prevalent in Cambodia’s recent history, since the country’s rebuilding efforts have been accomplished with large financial aid packages from other countries directed toward budget support, infrastructure repair, education, and social services. Although donor fatigue has begun to set in, the concept of the paid volunteer remains. Furthermore, other forms of volunteerism may not be easily recognized, but in the rural areas of the country, where 87 percent of the population resides, you may find various forms of helping centered around the village temple – wat in Khmer. The predominance of Theravada Buddhist beliefs brings village-based examples of volunteerism which are not typically seen in western societies or even in the city of Phnom Penh today. For example, people may offer assistance to the community and/or donate money in order to gain merit for their continual rebirth.

Initially I was interested in furthering the work of Lou Penner, Gil Clary, Mark Snyder, and others in understanding the personality factors and other motivators that can affect people’s choices to volunteer and the various functions that volunteering might serve for them. Now I hope that learning different cultural perspectives can not only further our understanding of the cultural influences on pro-social behavior but also explain more about how Cambodians may influence the philosophy and practice of recruiting and retaining volunteers. For example, having a better understanding of volunteer recruiting methods may help Cambodian organizations increase volunteerism, which can make significant economic contributions, build social cohesion, and increase self-reliance and sustainability.

Now is a good time to learn more about the factors underlying a Cambodian’s decisions to volunteer. Along with decreased foreign gifts and foreign volunteers coming into Cambodia, and few increases in governmental services, volunteer efforts within the culture will certainly be an important part of Cambodia’s future. Volunteers may have different reasons for volunteering, and whether a person finds the volunteer experience fulfilling is tied to whether that volunteer experience fulfils the important motives of the volunteer. Understanding more about these motivations may influence recruiting and retaining volunteers to help the most vulnerable groups, to alleviate poverty, and to aid the local communities.

I am very pleased that the volunteerism research will continue as an on-going collaborative project – we will learn more about this pro-social behavior and at the same time, can continue to build research skills with the psychology department faculty. The value of better-trained teachers and researchers is enormous, as they will be training the next generations.

I am very appreciative for the opportunity to establish research collaborations and new friendships that will last well beyond the eight month grant period. I hope to see significant applications of the volunteerism research project as Cambodia’s first psychology department establishes itself in the country. I look forward to learning more in expectation of an increasing amount of volunteerism in Cambodia that will increase the self-reliance and sustainability that will, in turn, enhance the country’s rebuilding efforts. It is my hope that my contributions to research capacity building will catalyze new modes of scientific inquiry, new models for teaching, and increased research funding at the universities.

Now that I have returned to Maine, I continue to look around and take pause. With the newest textbooks on my shelves, the computer at my desk, the constant supply of electricity, the adequate salary, and the cross-cultural collaborative research relationships underway, I more deeply appreciate my work in the American higher education system and in the global community.


Cheang, S. (2004). Teacher’s salaries high on ministries agenda. Phnom Penh Post, August 13-16, p 8.
Clary, E.G. & Snyder, M. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 156-159.
Penner, L.A. & Finkelstein, M.A. (1998). Dispositional and structural determinants of volunteerism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(2), 525-537.
Turton, C. (2000). The sustainable livelihoods approach and programme development in Cambodia. Working paper 130, Overseas Development Institute. London: Chameleon Press.

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