Fifteen young women from poor families have attended a Cambodian university as a result of a scholarship scheme set up by former volunteer Bill Shields.

Bill teaches at Svay Rieng University in a remote rural part of Cambodia near the Vietnam border. “There are not many foreigners and the local people are great and look after me well,” he says.

Bill Shields billboard

Bill enjoys this billboard on Svay Rieng's main road which shows him with some of his graduate students.

Soon after he began work there in March 2014, visiting friends from New Zealand asked how they could help. Bill set up the SRU scholarship scheme and began looking for sponsors. The scheme focuses on young women, he says, as they are underrepresented in student numbers and those from poor families get few opportunities for university study.

To date, a New Zealand Rotary group, a church group, families and individuals have paid the students’ $US280 a year university fees for their four-year undergraduate courses.

Bill had completed VSA assignments in Cambodia then Bougainville when he decided to return to Cambodia. It was “definitely the people” that drew him back, he says, met during his two years as a management adviser at Svay Rieng University.

Late in 2013, he posted on Facebook that he would return and give himself six months to find a job. The university rector, who had become a personal friend during Bill’s assignment, saw his post and emailed an offer. “I came over, we agreed terms, I started work and I’m still here.”

As the only native English speaker locally, he’s often invited to translate for visitors, such as an American professor who arrived to run a research workshop and assumed that Bill would translate into Khmer. “He burst out laughing when I said no, I was translating his English into my English which they could all understand as I speak slowly and they are used to my accent.”

His students are great, Bill says: “bright, respectful and eager to learn”, and he has also set up an English Club at the university. Former students, including a Buddhist monk, help him run the scholarship scheme – this Facebook site explains how it works.