- Columbia University
- United States of America
About Bryley Williams
Hi! My name is Bryley (she/her), and I am a second-year student at Columbia University. I study History, and I am deeply interested in memory, religion, and the preservation and adaptation of culture. As a Laidlaw Scholar, I am researching Khmer Buddhist revival in post-genocide Cambodia, looking especially at how social, spiritual, and moral orders were and are intertwined in processes of reconstruction.
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This summer I learned so much about Cambodian history and culture, as well as contemporary Cambodian society and politics. I think that I became a better communicator, both by learning how to interact with a language barrier present and by conducting interviews for my research. I don’t have one individual who was instrumental in shaping my project, but I think that the cohort-based organization of my program impacted my research in profound and beneficial ways. It was really interesting and fun to be a part of a group that included students from three different countries with different connections to Cambodia, and I learned a lot from casual conversations we had. I was particularly grateful to hear about the experiences of the Cambodian students in my program and their views on Cambodia as young people. In general, there were a lot of really passionate people in my program, and it was wonderful to be surrounded by people with such deep interest in topics such as classical Khmer dance, Khmer art and architecture, women’s rights in Cambodia, linguistics, folklore, etc. People’s genuine interest often seemed naturally to lead to good leadership. For instance, I visited Angkor Wat with two art history students who were excited to explain all about the temples. They were amazing guides—I learned so much, and this day ended up being one of the highlights of the trip thanks to their contagious enthusiasm and willingness to share their knowledge. I often don’t feel like I am a natural leader since I’m not very extroverted, but I do have a lot of deep interests, and this trip to Angkor Wat reminded me that passion and willingness to share often naturally leads to effective and impressive leadership.
My primary challenge this summer has been figuring out how I can pursue my research fieldwork when I do not speak Khmer and do not have many resources and connections in Cambodia. I wish I had a clear answer to how I've tackled this issue, but I am still grappling with it. One thing I've realized is that I need to figure out how to use the resources I do have to my advantage. My program is located on the grounds of a temple in Siem Reap, and so I am currently trying to get in touch with people associated with this wat through my program. I am not yet sure where this will lead, but I am hopeful that I will be able to conduct some interviews. This has been a good reminder for me to be flexible and to go with the flow! I've also expanded my view of what a summer of research can be: I've spent the last four weeks constantly learning, observing, and asking questions, and I think that even if I do not leave Cambodia with precise answers to my initial research questions, I will certainly leave with thoughts about many questions I didn't even know I had when I arrived.
In particular, I have become even more interested in the topic of historiography, especially how politics impacts the way history is written and collective memory is constructed. I’m now also quite interested in the field of museum studies, having noticed that people leave offerings and pray at places like the National Museum of Cambodia and Angkor Conservation (where many artifacts are stored and repaired). I have been thinking about how museums should approach artifacts that have active religious significance. My topic has not narrowed much, but thinking about my work through these new angles has been really exciting.
Although I generally love Paris and my internship, as expected, I have experienced some challenges in this new city and environment. As I'm sure many of y'all can relate to, adjusting to a different culture and crafting new friendships is incredibly difficult and anxiety inducing. Luckily, many of my Columbia friends are also in Paris this summer studying abroad through the Columbia in Paris programs. I really only had to experience a lonely Paris for a week before some of my closest friends arrived to accompany me on my journey. Due to this great advantage, I believe the greatest issue that I grapple with while here is the language barrier. I can speak an intermediate level of French; however, speaking in a classroom with fellow novices and speaking with real French people is a completely different ballgame. I am often too nervous to speak French confidently, and I have a lot of difficulty understanding fast-paced French people. This makes eating out, shopping, and every day tasks embarrassing at best. Many Parisians speak a functioning level of English, so I have never been severely hindered because of my lackluster language skills. However, in order to make the most of my experience, I aim to speak as much French as possible and it has really been an uphill battle overcoming my inhibitions about making a fool of myself. As time has passed, I have definitely improved in my conversational French, to the point where I can order meals with little to no issue. I found that I could easily improve my confidence by going out with fellow French-speaking friends who could help me in times of language-related crisis. Lots of practice and not letting unsuccessful interactions debilitate my attempts at speaking French were also very beneficial.
Working at the library has expanded my conception of cultural institutions and made me more interested in event-planning/intellectual discourse. The library often invites very diverse and interesting speakers who cover topics from journalism to technology-based philosophy. This interdisciplinary approach has not only been very enlightening in a broad range of subjects but has also made me more appreciative of having an open dialogue between scholars and the public. It is so wonderful to have a free forum for members of the community to learn about and participate in discussions that are often trapped in academia. Although I have always been interested in increasing accessibility, this experience has really reinforced my dedication to making the frontier of research more democratic. As a side note, I have also picked up a newfound interest in poetry since spending 28 hours of my week in a library with an expansive poetry collection.
First of all, the work you are doing at the library sounds so enriching and interesting. I'd love to hear more about the open dialogue initiatives and how the institution makes academia more accessible to the public. Secondly, overcoming language-related inhibitions is definitely challenging, and I'm so impressed by how you've pushed yourself to speak French and have grown more confident during your time in Paris!
What does a typical day of your research/community engagement look like? Aside from a narrative description, upload a photo, video and/or other media submission!
Apologies that I'm a week late in writing this, but I think waiting will have paid off! This week I was finally able to start some WASH work in the field, so I'm hoping that this day is more representative of what I'll be doing for my last two weeks in Ghana.
The day here starts pretty early for college students! While many of the locals wake up even earlier, I generally wake up between 6 and 7 am, eat breakfast, and am ready for my manager to pick me up by 8:30. It's nice to have plenty of time getting ready in the morning!
Then we ride on her motorbike to the office, which is not far from where I'm staying. We get organized for the day, and then she stays back at the office while I ride with a local volunteer (again by motorbike-that's really all anyone drives here!) to a nearby school. We spend a couple of hours there answering questions about menstrual health and asking the girls questions about how World Vision's menstrual hygiene management interventions have impacted them.
Then we might visit another school first or go eat lunch. After, I'll come back to the office and write down some notes on what we found and a plan on how we can improve interventions moving forward.
Around 5 pm or so we pack up and head out for the day. I come back to my hotel room, do some exercise and talk to friends or family from home, take a much needed shower after being out in the field, and go to bed around 9 in preparation for another day!
I'm having trouble figuring out how to upload photos, but if anyone has any tips I'm all ears and would love to share some!
It is so exciting that you were able to start doing fieldwork, and it's great to hear about the work that you are doing with WASH surrounding menstrual health education and hygiene management. I would love to learn more about how what World Vision's interventions are and how they are implemented (is it through the schools?). I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Ghana!
I can't figure out how to attach a photo, but here's a description of my typical day! After waking up and eating breakfast, I will join my group either for a discussion or a field trip. For instance, this morning we spoke about post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, and later this week we will visit the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. After our morning session, I will find somewhere to eat lunch and then will turn towards my own research project in the afternoon. This week, this involved visiting the Buddhist Institute, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, and Wat Phnom, a major temple. Though my program is based in Siem Reap, we are currently in Phnom Penh, so I've also been enjoying exploring the capital city! In the evening, I'll go to dinner, typically delicious street food, with others in my group, which is always fun. Casual discussions with other participants in my program have been the most valuable part of this experience for me and have really informed my thinking and research, so I'm always grateful to spend time with them. After dinner, I typically cannot resist a fresh fruit smoothie (pretty sure I will be dreaming about coconut smoothies when I go back home—they're SO good) before heading back to our hotel, wrapping up any work I have or hanging out with the group, and going to bed.
My research does not involve outside participation yet, so thus far, my work has taken on a very non-ethnographic research format. Currently, I'm writing a host of policy briefs regarding refugee advocacy causes, so I primary engage with the refugee communities present in the European Union and Bulgaria for my research. For most of this work, I'm relying on literature reviews - analyzing what perceptions of Europe refugees convey to other researchers, newspapers, and other media sources. How they inform my project differs with the topic of the policy brief I am working on at a given time period.
For instance, last week, my policy brief centered on how the EU-Turkey Statement - an agreement signed between the European Union and Turkey that conjointly diffused refugee responsibility to Turkey - impacted refugees trying to resettle in Europe. For that policy brief, refugees informed my project by sharing with me their perspectives dealing with an overly-bureaucratic asylum process and being in a state of legal oblivion. This week, my policy brief relates to access to housing for refugees, so refugees have informed my project by sharing with me their concerns about their living conditions, the safety of their neighborhoods, and the discrimination and racism they face in the processing of securing homes.
Your project this summer sounds really interesting and important! I'm curious about how you find the literature reviews you use for your research—I've never utilized literature reviews in research, but they sound like quite useful and informative sources. If language barriers are an issue while conducting this research, how do you deal with that?
My research plan has changed a bit, so interviews are no longer central to my project, but I still plan on interviewing some people. Last summer, I read an article by anthropologist Anne Guillou about the intersections of memory, religion, and powerful places in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia that really impacted how I think about conducting ethnographic research. Guillou did not ask participants directly about Democratic Kampuchea or use biographical methods; rather, she asked about significant places, which then led to people sharing other stories (partly because of the centrality of place within Khmer Buddhism). Guillou took this approach so as to "avoid the imposition of such Western categories as genocide, violence, suffering and trauma" (208). For me, this approach may look like asking about Khmer Buddhist practices in general rather than asking specific questions related to ritual during and after Democratic Kampuchea. I also want to be careful not to ask leading or forceful questions that center my own assumptions and instead follow participants' lead. I think that in general, this project is more suited toward the invisibility of the researcher, but I also know that I am always going to be present in my research, so I want to be aware of the ways in which I am visible, especially considering the dynamics of me as a non-Cambodian interviewing Cambodians or any assumptions I may hold (or, as Guillou says, biases toward frameworks of analysis that do not necessarily fit within this context) that could come through in my research process. My summer program is also a group program, so I have been engaging a lot with fellow undergraduates from the US, Cambodia, and France. This international and multicultural environment has been so enjoyable and interesting.
Guillou article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23752538?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents
This summer, I’m part of the Leadership in Action program, a collaboration between Columbia Undergraduate Global Engagement and World Vision. I am working in an office in the Bawku West District of Ghana, exploring the field with World Vision staff and engaging community members in projects like WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) and child protection. As a Human Rights major who specializes in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies, I’m very excited to be doing hands-on human rights work in Ghana!
One insecurity I had was about my contributions to World Vision. What can I, a rising junior in college and someone who has never stepped foot in Ghana, contribute to World Vision? The people in this office have decades of experience while I am just beginning my human rights journey. However, I spoke to Dr. Opong about this worry, and was able to alleviate much of the anxiety I had. He distinguished between “insider” and “outsider” perspectives, emphasizing the significance of both. As an insider, it is easier to connect with the community and to identify prominent issues. However, there are things one may miss simply because of their familiarity with the environment. An outsider looks at situations with fresh eyes and a different perspective, possibly pointing out new/underlying issues that haven’t been addressed. Even World Vision Ghana’s National Director is not Ghanian, partly for the usefulness of an outsider’s perspective. Although I may not have the deepest or most informed insights since I am a student with little experience with World Vision, I am hoping that my perspective is able to benefit staff to some extent.
Last year, I focused on political science research. I found bills from the 20th and 21st century that addressed the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, and abortion rights. Through my research, I attempted to pinpoint times in history where the prominence of these bills grew, the attachment of political parties to these issues, and more. Although I really enjoyed the projects and learned more about the relationship between institutions and human rights, I was hoping to step into the field and do hands-on work advocating for and improving human rights. My project this summer allows me to meet my goals. I’m actively engaging in the advancement of human rights, speaking with community members, and more!
I can relate to your concerns about not being able to contribute to World Vision—I have also been thinking a lot about my place as an undergraduate with an outsider's perspective in Cambodia, and it is definitely an insecurity of mine, too. Your supervisor's words about the value of both insider and outsider perspectives are helpful!