There was a time when Thomith Chin couldn’t afford the 50 cents his classes in Cambodia cost, so he would hide nearby to try and listen without getting caught. The teacher, a monk, discovered him after about three weeks and invited him to join the class for free.
This one small act of kindness stayed with Thomith and inspires him today. After completing an associate degree at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) in 2017, he is studying in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He has also founded International Youth for a Better World (IYFABW), an international nonprofit that partners with local communities to train and support local civic leaders and change-makers around the world.
“Our program’s primary focus is on education,” he said. “Initially, we want to train social entrepreneurs and leaders to identify needs in their communities and educate and organize community members (so) those needs can be met.”
Thomith grew up in extreme poverty. He was raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support him and his sister. His mother was poor, but she loved education and often made difficult decisions to give him opportunities — she sent him to live with his grandmother, then uncle, and even in a monastery to put him closer to education. She even sold their land to pay his tuition in his final year of school.
“That land was the only property that our family had, plus going to school without money to buy something to eat wasn’t very easy for a 17-year-old like me,” he wrote in this essay for a class. “Nevertheless, I still did it because at least I could continue my education. At that time, I promised myself that I would try my very best to succeed in my life and be able to help raise a family.”
Thomith’s grandfather had been living in the United States for about 30 years; in 2014, he and his mother joined him. They settled in Providence, where he almost immediately enrolled in CCRI’s ESL classes part time. He took a job on an assembly line in a factory in Massachusetts.
He was 9,000 miles away from the only home he’d ever known. Rather than be intimidated, though, he knew this was his chance to pursue an education that didn’t exist in Cambodia.
Thomith joined Phi Theta Kappa and served as vice president of his chapter. He was a math tutor and soccer player; he served as the vice president of DECA, a career and technical student organization for emerging leaders and entrepreneurs; and he was treasurer of the student body.
It wasn’t without its challenges, though. It took Thomith three years to learn the language, adapt to a new culture, and make friends. He faced some of these same struggles again in 2017, when he transferred to the University of Virginia (UVA), where he knew no one.
But, in his time there, he has built a network of friends, professors, mentors, and “aunties and uncles” that has supported him every step of the way.
“That, for me, is the most precious thing I’ve earned in my life,” he said.
Thomith is now pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. At 25, he has ambitious goals: run for public office in the United States, become Cambodian Prime Minister, and serve as Secretary General of the United Nations. But they might just be attainable for someone who started an international nonprofit as an undergrad.
IYFABW was established in 2018 because Thomith couldn’t stop thinking about those in Cambodia growing up as he did. The organization takes a “one goal, one focus, one result” approach — it tackles one goal at a time so it can devote all its resources to a singular focus and achieve results more efficiently.
Its first goal is a partnership with the University of Battambang in Cambodia, where IYFABW hopes to begin a training project in early 2020. And, IYFABW team members recently delivered backpacks of school supplies to impoverished children in Battambang Province.
“I honestly feel like a half-foreigner in my own country (in a good way),” he said. “I moved to America in 2014. Although five years is not too long, my perception and mentality have significantly developed.
“Additionally, Cambodian society has also remarkably evolved both in a positive and negative way. That is why I feel that I have a lot to learn from my own country.”
Thomith aims to work in Cambodia for up to three years to train, support, and produce 300 entrepreneurs, change-makers, and leaders. IYFABW’s Our Responsibility Initiative trains young people, encourages them to identify issues they want to address, and supports them in developing independent projects.
The training program starts with a one-month course that covers effective communication and advocacy, leadership and change management, project management, and social entrepreneurship. It will be led by college professors, business and non-governmental organization leaders, social entrepreneurs, and other relevant instructors. The next phase involves planning and completing a three-month project.
“While we will be starting with individuals with an interest in education as such, eventually our training may expand to include more tailored training for professionals such as paralegals, librarians, and others who can similarly spread knowledge and educate local people,” he said. “We are also trying to reduce inequality and lack of access to education by bringing libraries and school supplies to students in rural areas.”
Learn more about International Youth for a Better World.