CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, the amount of semesters it took Rattana Mai to graduate was misstated and the Anjali House was misspelled. Mai took three semesters to graduate.
DRYDEN — The plane took off two years ago from Siem Reap, Cambodia, around midnight, but Rattana Mai couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking of his “dream destination.”
“You kind of forget all the difficulties,” Mai said Thursday, the morning of his graduation from Tompkins Cortland Community College. “You just make it look easy.”
Almost 8,600 miles away from where he was born, Mai was one of the nearly 600 graduates who walked the stage at Thursday’s TC3 commencement. The first Cambodian graduate in the school’s history, Mai will leave the United States to return home Tuesday. Mai — who completed his two-year coursework in just three semesters due to financial constraints — hopes to someday return and attend a four-year college and become a lawyer.
“I don’t want money to get in the way of my dreams,” Mai said.
When Mai was a kid — he’s now 22 — his mother was a housekeeper and his father a construction worker, neither of whom made much money. He attended public school in Siem Reap, which was free, but he said the depth of what he learned was never large in classrooms with anywhere from 40 to 50 students.
After the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1975, neighboring Cambodia was left with little support. Teachers suffered, and to make money they charged a premium for “extra classes,” Mai said, which eventually became a tradition. It cost $5 a month, or 20,300 Cambodian Riel to enroll in the classes — an amount Mai’s family couldn’t afford — and many of the more useful lessons were saved for those courses, Mai said.
When he was 10, his mother contracted uterine cancer but refused surgery because it would cost the family $5,000, years of a typical family salary. She died in November 2007, and Mai’s father lost his job while caring for her the year prior. Mai, his father, his two brothers and his two sisters moved into his aunt’s vacant house in Siem Reap. The five shared two rooms.
The next year, Mai enrolled in one of the inaugural classes at the Anjali House, a nongovernmental organization that provided school supplies and complementary education programs to public schools for poor children in Cambodia. He learned to speak, read and write English, and the financial support helped his father buy food for Mai’s family. Mai got a job in the library at the Center of Khmer studies, a group that brings students to Cambodia for research.
Mai was an exceptional student and with one of the international board members at the Anjali House, Sue Guiney, he had long talks about his goals. When he was around 14 was the first time he said he wanted to be a lawyer.
“OK, do you want to go to (Royal University of) Phnom Penh?” Guiney asked.
She said Mai looked at her as if she was crazy. “No, I have to go abroad.”
Susan Cerretini, a recently retired professor at TC3, had run study-abroad trips with her Transformative Travel Writing class to the Center for Khmer Studies for three years, and said she felt it should be a reciprocal relationship. She wanted to bring a Cambodian student to TC3 to study. The director of the Center for Khmer Studies, Krisma Uk, introduced her to Mai.
They developed a plan: Sue and her husband, Don Guiney, with funding from about 20 people, Guiney said, would sponsor Mai’s tuition for two years and Mai would stay with Cerretini and Guiney.
Mai applied for a visa, navigated airports in three countries and put on a brave face at the United States immigration office in fear of being sent back home for not knowing where he was going. When he got to Cerretini’s home, he was shocked at just how different it was.
“You let the cats in the house?” Cerretini remembered Mai asked.
“Yes,” Cerretini replied. She laughed.
Some contributors to Mai’s tuition pulled out, Cerretini said, so Mai had to finish his coursework a semester early with the aid of a summer session. Faculty, staff and students at the college drove him to and from home and the Dryden Rotary Club hosted a benefit dinner to help pay for the summer courses.
In the past year, Mai started to feel ill. Cerretini worried it was a stomach ulcer, but a doctor diagnosed stress.
“He puts hours, and hours, and hours into every assignment,” Cerretini said. “And he pushes himself hard.”
Tuesday night was the celebration of it all. And that’s what he intended to do.
“I was just going to do what I have to do because we already made the plan,” Mai said.
But the plan is not his dream. He dreams of Georgetown, SUNY Albany and Tufts. A bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a law degree. He hears others talking about their dreams, and he can’t help but be jealous.
Tuesday, his plane will lift off toward his hometown and he will start his quest to return.
“I’m just focusing on celebration tonight,” Mai said. “And after that — let it be.”