Alumni Spotlight: Tenny Miller


Tenny is a rising senior in high school in Colorado. She is a student in the International Baccalaureate Program and wanted to do the Rustic Pathways Program to see and experience a completely new place and meet some new people.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program because there is a great combination of sightseeing and volunteer work. I liked that the service was more oriented towards personal interactions and relationships with the locals, rather than just coming in and doing whatever infrastructure project seemed right without considering long term implications or sustainability for the community. I really liked that the trip was to Cambodia, which I had to learn about for myself because I was never taught about it in school. This allowed me to experience Cambodia for myself and to learn all the beautiful aspects of Khmer culture while I was there.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

My program provider was Rustic Pathways, and they really helped us the entire way. They helped us through the paperwork from the beginning, and were very clear when each part was due and what we still needed before departure. They also held a webinar the week before the trip to answer any general questions, and were always extremely quick to respond to emails.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

If you have any questions, ask them! I tried to learn as much as I could on my own before getting to Cambodia, but I learned so much from my local guides. If you want to ask a local a question, ask your guide how to say it in Khmer.

People appreciate you trying to communicate in their native language, even if you don't always get it 100% correct. If you see something out the window during one of the drives and you want to know what it is, ask. If you want to know about a random aspect of the culture and it hasn't come up, ask about it.

For example, on the last night, I asked a bunch of questions about social issues, and my guide and I discussed Cambodian social issues in contrast with American ones. I certainly learned about the culture from our group activities and discussions, but the times that meant the most to me were the discussions that I had with the guides during our down time or during meals.

I learned so much. Asking questions allows you to connect with the culture in a way that is meaningful to you. It may seem like a simple tip, but it is so important to learn everything that you can when you are somewhere new because it makes the whole experience so much more your own.

Especially during the service in which we were teaching English, the locals were put in a vulnerable position because they were learning something from me and were trying something they didn't know. When I asked them for words in Khmer, it put me in a vulnerable position, and made them more comfortable because we were learning together.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

The first few days and the last few days were mainly for sight-seeing in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, however we did have more of a routine during our week in Kampong Cham.

We would wake up in our base house and the cook would have breakfast served at around 7:30. We then had until 8:30 to get ready for the day, and at 8:30, we would get into our van and drive to our service sight for the day. This is a quick drive – less than 10 minutes. Then we would do our service for the day. Sometimes it was infrastructure, sometimes we would teach English to teens and young adults, and sometimes we would play games and teach English to the elementary age students.

We would go for lunch at around 11:30, and then would have some down time before returning at 1:30. We would continue with our activity until about 4:30 before returning to the base house. We then had a bit of time to shower and play some games or have some down time. Then, we would go eat dinner at a restaurant that was affiliated with the organization that we worked with. We would then return to the base house and go over the plan for the next day. Some nights, we would pull up a projector and watch a movie, and sometimes we all just hung out and talked or played cards until bed time.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was that I would not make friends with the people in my group. The reality, however, is that when you spend that much time with a group of people, you are going to develop meaningful relationships. There were only eight students and three leaders in my group, so it was relatively small. Even though we were only together for 18 days, I feel like I know them all extremely well, and we are all good friends.

Don't be afraid to talk to new people, whether they are on your trip, if they are older or younger, or if they are a local.

It is so important to try to get as much as possible from this experience, and this comes from getting to know the other people in your group as much as possible.

I am generally pretty introverted. However, I found that even sitting with my group while we were all reading or writing or listening to music is extremely valuable.

Another thing that I was afraid of was getting sick. We were all doing great until the last day, when we all got sick for one day. That being said, we were all taken care of really well, and stayed hydrated and opted out of activities if we didn't feel good. You can't prevent getting sick, but I am certainly less afraid because we all got sick but were cared for and always felt safe with our guides.

Why do you think this trip was important?

This trip really opened my eyes to the intricacy of other cultures. We really talked about how there is no right way to live. Each culture has its pros and cons, and it is so much more complex than you could imagine.

For example, we talked about how we would meet a kid in the village and think, "Wow, when you come to America one day...." and then we would catch ourselves and remind ourselves that people can be happy even if their version of happy is different than yours. While this may seem like a stupid observation, and that it is something that we may already know, it takes an experience like this to internalize this.

We talked about how in Cambodia, even the simple act of removing our shoes before entering a temple made us feel instantly connected to the place and the people. We talked about how we felt people were so happy and healthy in Cambodia, and that the kindness shown by the locals was extraordinary.

However, we also spent hours cleaning up trash at one of the schools because Cambodians don't have proper access to waste disposal systems, and thus there is a lot of trash on the ground in many areas. And of course, Cambodia was devastated by a genocide only 40 years ago. I really think that I was able to learn about how important it is to learn about other cultures, and to be open minded to what makes them special as well as understand their struggles.

In terms of our impact on the community, I really value the service that we did with Rustic Pathways. I was nervous coming in that we would be a bunch of westerners coming into the community and doing things our way and then leaving them the same as we found them. The amazing thing about this trip though is that the community tells us what they need done, and we go in and do it. This may not always be the most glamorous work, but it is the work that impacts the community, and provides a lasting and sustainable difference.