Ly Kimhiek is a female mechanical engineering student studying in Japan as one of only a few women in her department. However, she does not face many challenges and is determined to succeed in her field and make a difference to Cambodia's economy by starting a vehicle manufacturing company.
Kimhiek attended school in Kandal province and said she was hesitant to participate in an outstanding student competition because the probability of winning the national exam was low. She said, “I used to believe that it was impossible to win and I almost gave up. But, my high school physics teacher told me that it is better to compete and fail, rather than have regret.”
With support from her family, Kimhiek decided to partake in the 9th grade national exam competition. Since then, she has been selected to represent Cambodia in various international competitions. In 2016, she participated in the International Junior Science Olympiad (IJSO), an annual individual and team competition in the Natural Sciences for students under the age of 16.
In 2017, Kimhiek took part in the ASEAN+3 Junior Science Odyssey (APT JSO). In 2018, she joined the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO), an international annual competition in physics organized by the Portuguese Physical Society (SPF). More than 80 countries participated in the competition.
"Even though our team didn't win any places in the competition, we still learned a lot," she said. Kimhiek added that she learned about the differences between Cambodia and other countries. For example, she noticed that foreign students tend to be more confident and optimistic than Cambodian students.
She said, “I remember one female student who was very confident that she would win the competition, but she didn't. This taught me that it's important to be humble and to never give up, even if you don't think you have a chance of winning.”
In 2018, Kimhiek also competed in the Asian Physics Olympiad (APhO), an annual physics competition for high school students from Asia and Oceania regions.
Promoting Women in STEM
Harboring a strong passion for physics in high school, she decided to enroll at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, where she developed an interest in robotics and mechanics. That is why she chose to study mechanical engineering at a college of university in Japan after she was awarded the Japanese Government Scholarship, MEXT.
Kimhiek said she is passionate about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and wants to see more females active in the field. She said she did not face many obstacles in her journey, as she believes the main obstacle is oneself.
However, she did have to overcome her own doubts and fears. But, she persevered and eventually won the MEXT scholarship to study in Japan. She added that external factors, including the common mindset of Cambodians who believe that girls should not study STEM, are not obstacles that prevent her from pursuing her dream.
According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, in higher education, women represent just over 35 percent of graduates in STEM-related fields. Kimhiek said, “In Japanese schools, there are two to three females in the whole department. Even during the interview, I was asked why I wanted to study mechanical engineering because the major is dominated by males. In my class, for example, five out of 40 students are females; this figure is considered as high.”
Moreover, women make up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce. In contrast, men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. These gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, including computer science and engineering, according to the American Association of University Women.
As one of a handful of females in her mechanical engineering class, Kimhiek hopes that more females will choose to study STEM, as she believes creativity should not be limited to males. She said, “I want to see more females studying mechanical engineering because I do not want creativity from only males.”
She added, “The reason there are less females in STEM-related fields is because of the mindset of Cambodian people. When I was in high school, there were people who asked me why I did not study accounting instead of mechanical engineering.”
Kimhiek noted that when she was young, many females studied accounting. She also mentioned that there are less people who are good at studying STEM-related majors.
She told Kiripost that she has a dream of creating a startup for manufacturing bases producing vehicles in Cambodia because imported cars are expensive. “If we can produce cars domestically, this would be beneficial to Cambodia’s economy in many ways,” she added.
Kimhiek explained that locally-produced cars are cheaper than imported ones because there are no imported tariffs, which usually costs as much as the price of the car itself. “Also, having domestic manufacturing bases would create jobs for Cambodia,” she added.
Different Teaching Styles
Kimhiek has noticed the difference in teaching styles between schools in Cambodia and schools in Japan. She said, “In Japan, there are group studies where not-outstanding students are grouped with outstanding ones. Also, teachers in Japan point out why students made mistakes during exams. This allows students to avoid making the same mistakes again in the future.
“Lastly, schools in Japan are more focused on experimentation rather than just studying theories. I prefer the teaching styles in Japan because there are practices. In schools in Cambodia there are practices and more theories.”
Tips for Applying for A MEXT Scholarship
Kimhiek encourages others to consider studying in Japan as she believes the country has advanced technology and a supportive learning environment.
She suggested that students should apply for scholarships even if they are not confident of being awarded. She said, “Sometimes, even though you think you cannot do it, once you do, you will see that you can. Just like me applying for a competitive scholarship like MEXT.”
She said that having a good command of the English language is important in applying for the scholarship because the examination is in English. However, when selected to study in Japan, students are required to study Japanese for one year.
For Kimhiek, this was a challenge. She said, “This was my main obstacle because I only had one year studying Japanese to a level where I am able to learn mechanical engineering in Japanese.”
Regarding the cultural difference, Kimhiek said she experienced some culture shocks. “However, I think Japanese and Cambodian culture have some things in common, like respecting the elderly. Since I have experience leaving my family to pursue my education in the city, when I go to Japan homesickness is not the main problem.”