Two West Virginia University Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism (SOJ) students participated in a study-abroad program this summer in Southeast Asia that has changed their lives forever.
Robert Rizzuto (Jamestown, N.Y.), who graduated in May, and Kendal Montgomery (Williamstown, W.Va.), a news-editorial junior, went to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand in hopes of putting together a multimedia documentary about the country’s culture, society and life, specifically, the growing problem of human trafficking in Cambodia and Thailand. But what they came back with may be even more valuable personally.
“We saw some extremely poor people with no real chance of pulling themselves out of the poverty,” said Rizzuto. “Once you see poverty like that, it gives you a different perspective on life. To see someone born with nothing, live with nothing and then die with nothing, it gave me the realization that every day is a gift here in America.”
Montgomery echoed Rizzuto’s statements, adding, “There was a lot of human trafficking with very young girls [in Cambodia]. Traveling through the villages and seeing all of those children with no opportunities was so sad because that’s where it starts. It was an experience that changed my life.”
The two went to Southeast Asia through a linkage agreement between WVU and An Giang University in southern Vietnam. Montgomery and Rizzuto accompanied WVU associate professor Neal Newfield, who teaches in WVU’s Division of Social Work; Susan Newfield, Neal’s wife and associate professor of nursing at WVU; and Jim Keim, director of the Southeast Asia Children’s Project (SACP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of child trafficking.
Last year, the School of Journalism’s Diversity in Media Association (DIMA) student group produced public service announcements for SACP aimed at gaining awareness about human trafficking around the Cambodia-Vietnam border area. Rizzuto was president of DIMA from 2006 to 2007.
The SOJ gave Rizzuto a grant to pay expenses and loaned Montgomery photographic equipment for this summer’s trip.
Neal Newfield said the trip was multi-functional for them – to teach a social work and public health course for Vietnamese and WVU students at An Giang University and to interview people for documentaries about sex trafficking in Cambodia and Thailand for the SACP.
“We went to Cambodia and Bangkok interviewing people on sex trafficking,” said Neal Newfield. “I think Jim Keim’s intent, and my hope as well, is that the documentaries produced are used for multiple purposes. We might use some longer, more academic documentaries at the universities, and there might be others used for more popular outlets to help get discussions going on the issue.”
It was that experience – working with Keim and Newfield – that prompted the two students to go on the six-week trip.
The group visited a brothel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, as part of their fact-finding effort. One side of the night club had a family karaoke bar and behind a door on the other side, 20 to 30 young women sat behind a glass enclosure, called a fish bowl, with numbers pinned to their shirts.
“Men would come in and order a number,” said Montgomery. “Some guy would yell out the number with a microphone, and the girls would come out and leave with the buyer.”
“We paid to talk to a couple of girls at the fish bowl. They looked extremely young, but they all said they were 18. They’re trained to do that.”
Most of the women working in the fish bowl are debt bonded. It is not uncommon for daughters to pay off personal or family debt by serving as a sex worker. In more impoverished areas, young people become sex workers just to provide income for their families, and still others are abducted and forced into prostitution.
Rizzuto and Montgomery say the trip gave them an eye-opening education on how difficult life in other countries can be. Rizzuto recorded many of his experiences on the University’s popular Blogging from Abroad Web site, which can be accessed on the SOJ site at http://journalism.wvu.edu.
“I plan on producing a couple of pieces on different aspects of the trip,” said Rizzuto. “I will focus on the experience as an American in Asia, speaking on issues from a journalistic sense, and on the human-trafficking issue.
Montgomery took more than 1,000 pictures on the trip. “This was my dream – to travel, take pictures and show aspects of the world that aren’t always seen,” she said. A full-page spread in the Aug. 17 The Daily Athenaeum featured some of Montgomery’s photos.
The two students agree it was a personally enriching trip.
“I learned how lucky we happen to be here in the good, old USA,” said Rizzuto. “There are opportunities that exist in the United States that are not present in many rural areas of Southeast Asia. If worst comes to worst, we can get a fast-food job for some cash. We like to complain about how difficult it is here, but we’re lucky to have the luxury of complaining.”
Montgomery added, “I don’t refer to myself as poor anymore. Sometimes I may be broke, but I’m not poor.”