After two years of gaining experience in the working world, Key decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship aiming to pursue a Master's degree in the United States. It was his second time applying for a Fulbright scholarship, he said.
Ou Tonghour, often known as Key, was a student at Limkokwing University, majoring in Business Entrepreneurship before receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study Social Enterprise at the American University in Washington in 2019. Currently, he is an artist and co-founder of Attire Lounge.
During his Bachelor's degree, he undertook an internship at Impact Hub Phnom Penh, allowing him to learn about social entrepreneurship. In addition, it inspired him to work in the non-profit sector, a 29-year-old said.
“Having basic knowledge of NGOs, I worked at Global Peace Foundation Cambodia in the business field after I graduated,” he said. “While working there, I also got a YSEALI scholarship, which is a five-week exchange program to the United States."
During the exchange program, Key got to learn about social entrepreneurship and how it contributes to economic development. He then spent two years contemplating what he truly wanted to study before applying for a Fulbright scholarship again, the part-time lecturer at NUM said.
Choosing a Major
His experience with Impact Hub Phnom Penh enabled him to shift his mindset about business. Previously, he thought it was solely about making a profit.
“What we learn in school is when we do business, we need to make a profit, which is the first goal,” he said. “After understanding social entrepreneurship, actually, business isn’t only about making a profit, we also want to assist people. So, this made me interested.”
Having experience in both the business and non-profit sectors, he believes social entrepreneurship is a good fit for him. Efforts that benefit society can be sustained as he is able to generate money using a business model, he added.
“This made me strongly interested in social entrepreneurship,” he said. “Also, my connection with NGOs and social entrepreneurs allows me to have more understanding of social entrepreneurship.”
Key added that both his interests and the people around him influenced his decision to pursue social entrepreneurship.
Preparation: Dare to Fail and Explore
Everyone has to fail for the first time, he said. "Just because we fail for the first time, it does not mean we are not good enough.”
He added that in order to pass, there are many factors to consider, including who will apply and which areas the donor will focus on.
"When I applied for the second time, I hoped for the best but also prepared for failure. This is what I prepared,” he said. “I prepared to do my best, but I was also ready to fail; that’s okay. It's fine. We need to prepare our minds for this."
Furthermore, he attempted to better understand himself. He believed each scholarship required a lot of money, therefore the donor will want to know the academics are strong-willed and have solid life goals.
"Since we need to learn for two years, they invest a lot of money in us. So they want to know if our goal is aligned with what we are doing currently,” he said. “That's why during the two years I worked, I tried to accomplish a pathway, which implies that what I want to learn is in line with this.”
Key said that it is positive for graduates to study a Master's degree, but gaining real life and work experience first can strengthen an application and convince the committee of the chosen field of study.
"For me, I grabbed two years, then I applied as I wanted to obtain experience working,” he said. “First, I studied business. But, after doing an internship, I am more interested in non-profit organizations. So, if we don't allow ourselves enough time to explore, it may be tough to write an application,” he said.
“It is very hard to connect the dots. [We should] give ourselves time to do different things in order to determine if we enjoy it or not."
Writing: Understanding and Honesty
Writing a personal statement will be extremely tough if we don’t understand ourselves, Key advised.
"To write an impactful personal statement, we must first understand ourselves,” he said. “As there are a lot of applications, we need to make the reader remember us. So, I used my personal experience to describe myself.”
He noted that people prefer to write a big picture and highlight what others contribute to society, but they fail to describe what they have done in the field they want to study. They also prefer to use others’ articles and cite them as examples, but fail to mention their own experiences in their personal statement.
“I always connect to my experiences so the reader can understand that I am always the one who has contributed to the big picture. When we discuss the big picture, the committee doesn’t know what we have contributed,” he said. “So when we insert our experiences into it, they'll realize we contributed and deserve credit."
In his application, he mentioned a past initiative in which he assisted more than 600 children to gain access to basic English education.
"This also contributes to the big picture,” he said. “So, don’t forget to write about yourself because a personal statement is to describe yourself.”
Honesty is also important, Key said, adding there are many things he does not know. He was able to use this to his advantage and said that was why he wanted to study in the US, to learn and improve.
"If we already know everything, what is the point of continuing to learn over there? We need to dare to admit what we don’t know,” he said. “This is what I think is humbleness.”
During the interview, people should also have the confidence to admit they do not know if they are unsure how to respond, he added.
“We can say we don’t know, or we can say we need time to think about it and will get back to you,” he said. “Because if we respond to what we don't know and start saying things we just make up, it will be tough.”
Interview: Be Grateful, Humble, and Detail
As his interview was conducted in front of four committees and one alumnus, it made him very nervous, Key recalls.
“I admit I was nervous, especially when I walked into the embassy since its security was so strict. The procedure already made me nervous.”
Despite this, he said he did not fail to express his gratitude to the committee as he respected their time and the chance that they gave him.
"Even if we are great, we need to be humble. We are not the best in the world,” he said. “We have a lot of areas that need to be improved. Thus, when we get there, we need to show that we are humble and appreciate their time since they have an hour to interview us."
He also advised daring to ask for time during the interview to frame your response.
"This is what I did. At that time, the committee asked me a question, 'Since you already returned back for two years, what did you accomplish to build a relationship between Cambodia and the US?',” he said. “So, I asked them for a minute to think about it, and they were okay.”
He added that individuals often attempt to answer fast as they are nervous, but it is critical to request time.
"If we answer right away, we won't know how to conclude it. Sometimes, we will respond without structure,” he said. “When we have more time, our brain will begin to formulate, and we will know where to begin and how to complete it."
Never forget to say thank you when the interview ends, he said.
"I believe this is a simple thing, but it may display our character by allowing people to know the sort of person we are,” he said. “When it finishes, we should thank them for their time. Sometimes, it will help them to remember us.”
A minor detail makes you stand out from others, he said.
“If we talk about selling ourselves, everyone knows how to sell,” he said. “But humbleness is rare, and sometimes we might forget it.”
Building on your application is also important as the committee has already reviewed it and the question will be tuned to what you wrote, he said.
"The interview is a chance to elaborate on what we do. For example, if they ask what I've done in the social entrepreneurship sector, I can only write about the project including an entrepreneurial component in it,” he said.
“But during the interview, I can elaborate on that component. For example, I collaborated with the supplier to create a business model that is both sustainable and generates income to support the project."
He added that giving details allows the committee to grasp it better. It was these details that made the committee remember him and understand what he was doing.
Give yourself a chance
Key believes that many people want to apply for the scholarship, but are afraid of failing and being embarrassed. He was just like them when he first tried it.
"I used to feel like that. But, failure allowed me to strive harder till I passed,” Key said. “Therefore, my message is to give yourself a chance, which means to create a chance for yourself since nothing will change if you don't do anything.”
‘Do your best, Give it your best, and Let it go’ is a quote he lives by. "We only know that we are doing our best. So, no matter what happens, let it go. Don't blame yourself."