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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘I Would Like All Students to Have Equal Opportunity to Succeed in Education,’ Says Somanita Kheang

When she was growing up in Cambodia, Somanita Kheang was inspired by her family to pursue higher education and value the importance of education in life. However, it wasn’t until she was working as a research analyst and securities representative while teaching English part-time that she began to consider the impact she could make on the field.  

“I wanted to be able to help those students because I knew that English is very important in Cambodia,” Kheang said. “I wanted to be a better educator for them.”

While earning her bachelor’s degrees in English literature and finance and banking, Kheang had taken an elective course on non-formal education, a class that made her wonder if there were techniques she could use to better teach her students, some of whom were adult learners. 

Deciding she needed to know more, Kheang left her job at OSK Indochina Securities Limited in Cambodia and, through scholarship support provided by Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, attended Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, where she earned a master’s degree in non-formal education. Her first published research paper focused on understanding how non-formal education could help unskilled workers in Cambodia.

From then on, Kheang has continued to focus on supporting adult learners’ well-being and success. In 2018, she earned her first doctoral degree, an Ed.D. in instructional leadership, at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, where, as part of her dissertation, she developed three dimensions — teacher beliefs, teacher feelings and teacher behaviors — that she determined were important to improving international students’ experience and satisfaction in adult learning classrooms in American colleges and universities. Those dimensions have since been cited and used to inform research in industries as diverse as nursing and business. 

“If you can impact just one piece at a time, one population at a time, it’s like a ripple,” Kheang said. “It starts as just one and then keeps going until it becomes a wave.”

She also realized she was improving her ability to make an impact on adult learners when, as a researcher and teaching assistant, she inspired another doctoral student to continue work on her dissertation. 

“I said, ‘You just need something to light up your passion,'” Kheang said. “‘I know you’re very passionate about doing this. Tell me something about what you want to do in your research.’ Then she shared her ideas with me and I helped her to narrow it down. As a result, the student took my advice and decided to persevere. She successfully completed her dissertation with a doctoral degree during pandemic.”

While pursuing her degree in the NC State College of Education’s Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development’s adult and lifelong education concentration, Kheang’s research has been focused on improving student success for a number of different adult populations, including international students, non-traditional students, low-income students, students of color and underprepared students who attend community college.

Working with Sarah Deal, senior researcher at DVP-Praxis LTD, and Keith Street Robinson, another doctoral student in the College of Education, Kheang published work that made recommendations for the successful implementation of the Guided Pathways Project, which is designed to improve both student access and student completion rates at North Carolina community colleges. With NC State College of Education alumna Kaye Yadusky ’18PHD and Associate Professor Chad Hoggan, Kheang also co-wrote a journal article about how to minimize threats to identity faced by community college students. This article was published in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice and cited by various adult education scholars from different higher education institutions across the United States.

“I want education to be able to help students from who they are and where they are from to achieve what they really want to achieve in life,” Kheang said. “That’s why I was so passionate about my community college research.”

For her second dissertation, Kheang is focusing on a different population of adult learners, specifically non-traditional doctoral students at Tier I research institutions who are struggling with impostor phenomenon. With her research background and her involvement as a leader in a number of graduate student organizations, Kheang has learned factors that impact graduate student success and that uniquely position her to address the topic. 

“It’s important for the prospective doctoral students who are planning on pursuing a doctoral degree at a research institution, so that they have a sense of what the expectations might be, the process and also the coping strategies in terms of some challenges,” Kheang said. “My research also serves as a resource for faculty, staff and higher education leaders in the field, as well as related individuals, who are working toward helping promote student success in higher education.”

In addition to her research, Kheang is also making an impact on the success of adult learners through her work as the managing editor of the Journal of Transformative Education, an NC State College of Education graduate student ambassador and as the president of the Adult, Workforce, and Continuing Professional Education Graduate Student Association. Kheang’s involvement led to her being recognized with the Adult, Workforce, and Continuing Professional Education program’s Outstanding Civic Engagement Award in 2021.

Through the graduate student association, as well as through her work as a teaching assistant, Kheang has been able to interact with adult learners on a personal level and use the skills she has developed to become both the researcher and educator she has long wanted to be.

“I want to help,” Kheang said to her students. “I want to get to know you better; what your learning needs are and your learning goals are; and how I can help support you from where you are to get where you want to go.”

Helping students get where they want to go — that’s Kheang’s overarching goal.

“I would like all students to have equal opportunity to succeed in education,” Kheang said. “It doesn’t matter who they are because I know students are very diverse, with different cultural, educational and national backgrounds — I want them to believe in themselves and their potential, as well as their uniqueness, so that they can succeed and hopefully inspire others if they have a chance to do so.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

In my English literature degree, I took elective courses and one of the courses that I took was non-formal education, where I was introduced to how lifelong education is not just formal but also non-formal and informal. It was completely new to me.

I became passionate about what it was I was doing and how I can impact people in a certain way. But it wasn’t clear that I wanted to be an adult researcher and educator just yet at that time. 

Then, I was working at a securities firm, but also I was teaching English as a part-time job. That’s when I felt like, ‘How can I help my students learn what I’m teaching?’ Some of my students are kids and some are adults. So, how can I better communicate with them? Everything I’m teaching, how can I make it not boring? How can I be a good teacher? 

I saw an announcement about the [Royal Scholarship under Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Education Project to the Kingdom of Cambodia], and actually for some reason, I just loved the name, Chulalongkorn University. They had non-formal education — it checked all the boxes. So I applied for that, and I passed the examination and also the interview. That is how I transitioned into [the field of education]. My passion was developed through my teaching the students and wondering, ‘Why are they not interested in what I’m teaching?’ I wanted to be an educator for them. 

Why I Chose Adult Education:

I want to become an adult education researcher, educator and trainer. I don’t believe that it is too late to do anything. Even though I completed one doctoral degree, I still feel like I can learn, and I always think about the next achievements that I can accomplish in the education field.

My passion is to use my knowledge, experience, skills and expertise to help people to succeed in postsecondary education in the U.S. because I see a lot of gaps that we can fill in education. There are diverse students that are in need of help. Some are actually at risk of dropping out of school because they don’t get enough of a support system. So, just within the school, what can people do to help those populations? And in my role as an educator and a researcher, how can I influence and help move this forward? 

How Education Has Shaped Me:

The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, from 1975 to 1979, a lot of scholars — especially those who had higher education — were killed. Even my grandfather, he was killed because he was a teacher, and they found out. 

My grandmother was a teacher. Also, a lot of my family members are highly educated, especially my father. He got a scholarship to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Cuba. So, I was inspired by his educational goal and how education is important for you to achieve whatever you would like to achieve in life, your life goals and dreams. 

I value education, especially higher education, because I believe that it is a mechanism to prepare people — regardless of their age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, cultural or national identity — to have a solid foundation to succeed in any field that they are working toward. 

As an adult educator and researcher, in adult education and higher education, my role is to help students going through that process. What are the support systems that we have to help those students? It doesn’t matter who the students are and how diverse they are in terms of gender, race, educational and cultural backgrounds, those students need help to succeed in their postsecondary education. My ultimate goal is to help support those students to achieve their learning goals and needs.

What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:

The College of Education offers a lot of research opportunities for students to be able to work not just with faculty members, but also work independently on various research projects.

There are awards and grants that help diverse students, especially underrepresented students, in the College of Education to be able to pursue their goals in different areas of expertise in the education field. The education field in and of itself is really broad. You can have K-12, higher education and community college education and, within that, you can do research with industry or academia. It’s really huge.  

The College of Education provides opportunities for students, regardless of educational and cultural backgrounds, to experience something they may not be able to experience if they are not in this college. We also have a lot of support through faculty who are willing to work with students, with who they are and where they are. 

For example, the way that I work with my advisor is not the same way that other students work with their advisor. I have my dissertation research background, so the way that I need help with my advisor should be a little bit different from students who have never had a dissertation written before. 

The advisors are willing to work with you, helping you from where you are to where you would like to achieve. And I feel like the diversity, equity and inclusion is very strong in the College of Education, especially through the panel discussion [addressing how to improve the experience of Asian faculty, staff and students] that I got involved in.

They did pay attention when Asian hate-based violence was everywhere in the pandemic. It was: ‘What can we do to help support the well-being of faculty and students and staff and to ensure that they do not feel nervous and not panic amid this crisis? We are here to support you.’ So, I feel like we are recognized, valued and protected. I feel like the College of Education is amazing. 

How I Hope to Inspire Others:

I would like to inspire people, especially underrepresented students in postsecondary education, to think more, do more and become more. I believe in the uniqueness of each individual. It doesn’t matter if they have higher education or if they just have a high school diploma, I believe that each individual student is unique. I want them to pull out the knowledge, skills and talent — the heroes inside them  — and use those as resources and tools to improve and to succeed in their postsecondary education and beyond.