Campus, Student Spotlight

Clark Student Spotlight: Cambodian-American Student Studies Spanish At Age 75

By Theresa Matthiesen

Most Clark students are under 30, exploring their options for education and careers. However, if you walk the campus, you’ll see many who don’t fit that mold. A few students share their stories.

Clark student Roeuk Chen, 75, was born in 1942 in Cambodia. By the time she was 27, the Vietnam war had started to spill into her country.

She had a son, Jan Chen who was always sickly, she said. Jan’s illness and the difficulties caused by American bombing took their toll and Jan died at age 4.

The Americans dropped bombs in my country,” Chen said. “A lot of people got killed.”

On April 17, 1975 communist Khmer Rouge forces overtook Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and a friend urged Chen and her husband to flee.

“I said, ‘Well, people say that it’s not safe. We have to leave,” she said.  

The same day, she said, she and her husband took their children, Chanda Chen, 2, Sarann Chen, 6 and an adopted boy, Savann Chen, 15, to Malaysia with help from her husband’s military connections.

From there, they headed to the Philippines and on June 25, 1975, they arrived in Eugene, Oregon where a sponsor family hosted them for a year while they learned English.

“I compare learning English with pulling bamboo trees back,” Chen said. “Everything seemed too fast; all connected together.”  

Chen’s husband had a friend in Portland who helped him seek a custodial job. Chen learned enough English to work at a school as administrative support.

When Chen retired after working with several tech companies, she said it was time to go back to school. This is her third quarter learning Spanish at Clark.

“The teachers are wonderful and I have great classmates,” she said.

Chen said she even plans on learning another language: ASL. “I think it a very unique language,” she said.

She said she is inspired by one of her grandsons, who is hearing impaired.

Chen’s motive for school isn’t a degree, but pursuing a life long dream of enjoying school. “I always loved to go to school since I was young,” she said. “But I never had opportunity.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said Chen was born in 1943 and misspelled her name in the photo caption. It also misquoted Chen as saying learning English was like “pulling bamboo tree bark.” 

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