The University of Arizona

Cambodian Roots Inspire Graduating Senior's Psychology Focus

By University Communications, April 30, 2013

Meardey Kong immigrated to the U.S. at age 10 after her parents survived the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. At the UA, research for her honors thesis brought her back to Cambodia, where she witnessed how psychological trauma from the genocide continues to affect the country today. This experience fueled her ambitions to study the field of psychology.

Meardey Kong's family history has directly impacted her future.

Before moving to the United States in 2002, when Kong was 10, she and her family lived in Cambodia. There, her parents survived one of the world's most horrific genocides, perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the deaths of nearly 3 million people.

Tragically, Kong's grandparents were among the victims. On her paternal side, both of Kong's grandparents succumbed to malnutrition, and on her maternal side, her grandfather, a high-ranking Army official, was assassinated.

Kong's parents rebuilt their lives in the years following the regime. They became small business owners, and they had success operating a car dealership and a karaoke bar. But the trauma of losing so many loved ones remained, and ultimately, they opted to begin a new life in the United States.

"I think the primary reason my parents came here is so my brother and I could pursue our education," Kong said.

Kong will graduate from the University of Arizona on May 10 Magna Cum Laude from the Honors College with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics, economics and law and a bachelor's degree in psychology.

During commencement, Kong will be honored with a Robie Gold Medal, which recognizes well-rounded individuals whose contributions through co-curricular and community activities and leadership have had a positive impact on the University and surrounding community.

In spite of difficulties Kong's parents faced during their transitioning years because of linguistic and cultural barriers, they always instilled in their children the value of education. After seeing how hard her parents had and continued to work, Kong knew she had to work hard in high school to earn scholarships in order to attend college.

She received a total of six scholarships from the UA and private donors, including from the Arizona Assurance program, the James Baird Foundation Scholarship, the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship and the Magellan Circle Scholarship.

Her passion for research began when she was admitted into the Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program, a federally funded initiative designed to prepare traditionally underrepresented students for graduate school. Under the supervision of V. Spike Peterson, her summer-intensive independent project entitled "The Politics of U.S. Intervention in the Sex Trafficking Industry of Cambodia" was published in the peer-reviewed journal Righting Wrongs: A Journal of Human Rights. She also had numerous opportunities to present her research at national conferences.

A recipient of Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, Kong was able to return to Cambodia after 10 years to collect data for her undergraduate honors thesis. After spending two months in her homeland, Kong witnessed how psychological trauma from the genocide continues to afflict the country today.

"Going back and getting in touch with my roots, and seeing what the problems are in Cambodia, it really made me reflect on the level of impact that I want to have," Kong said.

"Do I want to help Cambodians and Cambodian Americans, or keep pursuing my path, which before was really more of the international relations, political science path? Or do I want to do more at the grass-roots level and really help individual families?" she said. "When I got back to the U.S., I found myself continuing to think about that and being really intrigued by how Cambodian Americans are still affected by the genocide that occurred in my country not so long ago, and how the trauma is still unresolved for a lot of families."

Kong learned of the limited number of psychologists and psychiatrists in the country, and she hopes one day to add to the field by conducting research on countries plagued with historic trauma, such as Cambodia. She has also explored her interest in the field of psychology by working in the Rule of Governance Lab under the leadership of Jake Jacobs, where they conducted experiments on understanding instructions, spatial mapping and rule governance.

Kong considers her involvement on campus and in the Tucson community to be the highlight of her undergraduate career. For two years, she worked as a peer advisor for Student Support Services/TRiO, where she mentored first-generation, low-income students and students with disabilities. Her role was to provide one-on-one mentoring, host workshops and provide retention-related services to underrepresented students at the UA.

In the community, Kong served as a Youth Commissioner to the Tucson City Council, where she found limited opportunities for youth engagement. Together with a small group of likeminded youth, they started their own grassroots organization called the Youth Coalition for Activism and Progress, with the vision of providing and facilitating authentic youth-led organizing in Tucson and Pima County.

She has extended her efforts to working with refugee youths as an intern for the International Rescue Committee Tucson Office. There, she mentors high schoolers who are part of the Refugee Youth Coalition through their transitioning years in America, as well as facilitates meetings on college preparation and professional development.

All of this contributed to her recognition as the Honors College Junior of the Year in 2012, as well as invitations to join prestigious national fraternities including Phi Beta Kappa and Psi Chi.

This fall, Kong will begin the doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston to pursue her research and clinical desire to work with adolescents and families with histories of collective trauma. She is committed to serving underserved and underprivileged populations, such as immigrant and refugee communities.

"My immediate goal is to help Cambodian American, and I know there are a lot of them (in the Boston area)," she said. "Once I've established that reach and sort of build my career, whether it's going to be in academia or whether it's in family practice and counseling, then I can then take that back to Cambodia."