Where Are They Now? – ISPP – International School of Phnom Penh

Alumni Interview: Joseph Surivong
Class of 2014 | Years at ISPP 2002 – 2014
Hello ISPP Community!My full name is Boonchu Joseph Surivong however throughout my time at ISPP I just went by Joseph Surivong. My mother is Irish, my father Thai and I was born in Bangkok in 1996. Only a few weeks after my birth, my parents returned to Sisophon in Banteay Meanchey province. My early adventures as a toddler involved chasing after our neighbours’ pigs and reciting poetry in Mandarin at the local Chinese school. In 1999, my family travelled to Swansea, Wales for my mother’s postgraduate studies where I entered nursery as a seasoned hog-rider. Upon my mother completing her studies in 2001, we travelled to Thailand, then back to Cambodia. Arriving in Phnom Penh, I attended a smaller Khmer school until landing in Grade 1 at ISPP circa 2002.

My arrival at ISPP was a big shift from what I was used to. The environment was slightly intimidating as my English was relatively poor and the lack of farm animals to play with made things a tad lonesome at first. Despite this, it did not take long for me to adjust, make friends and integrate myself into the community. I was truly blessed with amazing teachers who deeply cared for my academic development. I am grateful to my parents for encouraging my curiosity as a child and felt that this curiosity was nurtured during my twelve years at ISPP. The subjects that were covered at school were eclectic and diverse. I have vivid memories of coming home to my parents and overwhelming their ears with everything I had learned. The classroom environments encouraged discussion and critical thinking. These aspects were vital in my development and maturation as a person.

Aside from academics, I was routinely involved in extracurricular activities. I had taken part in a few school theatre productions however I was deeply committed to all the MRISA sports. Through Grades 6-12, I attended a total of 15 MRISAs. Sport became a big part of my identity as a teenager and this has continued till this day. The comradery, wide smiles and loud laughs I shared with all my teammates and coaches hold a special place in my heart.

My life since graduating from ISPP in 2014 shares many similarities with my time as an ISPP student; I am still trying to do everything, everywhere, all at once. After graduating, I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps and I studied Zoology at Swansea University. My fondness for animals and nature which began with many a pig in Banteay Meanchey had taken me to the exotic lush hills of Wales. Counting sheep before falling asleep had never been easier. As an undergraduate student, the inquisitive environment at ISPP allowed me to acclimatise quite well at university. Upon completing my studies at Swansea in 2017, I took my first job offer to work on a snake research team in North-East Thailand for eight months. My job primarily involved community outreach and mitigating human-wildlife conflict between snakes and local villagers. The job was a seismic learning experience and got me hooked on wildlife research ecology. Proceeding chasing snakes, I decided to pursue postgraduate studies at Queen’s University Belfast in Ecology and Environmental Management. My time there further strengthened my research acumen and skills. I completed my masters in December 2019. Fresh after my master’s, I was working as a part-time production assistant for a small Laos film company. As a consequence of Covid, I could not continue this work in Laos and was stuck in Thailand. I was fortunate enough during Covid to find work as a field ecologist for the National Parks Department in Thailand.

The research project I worked on investigated the population genetics of Southeast Asian otters in relation to the regional wildlife trafficking market. The work was rigorous but very rewarding and I spent the majority of 2021/2022 in the jungles of Thailand. In May 2022, I decided to leave the forest and reevaluate my career as sleeping in a hammock and surveying streams was taking a toll on my body. After my forays in the jungle, I found a job as an assistant editor for the academic research journal MDPI. The job allowed me to delve deeper into the meticulous nature of research publishing. My responsibilities included editing and formatting research manuscripts before peer review. While the research was fascinating, the corporate environment and schedule were not for me.

Presently, I am employed part-time again with the Lao film company Running Reel. I am at a crossroads in my life where I am reevaluating my values and my aspirations. I am quite uncertain about what career I might next jump into. However, my journey in my life so far has made me resilient. I am cautiously optimistic but confident that my next job will align well with the values and morals I first developed at ISPP. In Grade 7, my English teacher Mr Krupp introduced the class to “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. The first line is “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both.” I think this is quite apt considering where I am in life now. I am not sure where I am going but I have never been more prepared for what’s ahead.

What are your hobbies? What do you end up doing in your spare time?
Sport is essential to my life. During my time in Phnom Penh, there was not a great variety of activities to get stuck into. I have warm memories of my time at ISPP Elementary playing both football and basketball with the after-school programs. Once I arrived in Secondary, I immediately started to try out for all the sports teams. Sports at ISPP allowed me to travel Southeast Asia with MRISA and build lifelong friendships with students at other schools. The international environment on each of the teams prepared me well for university.

What would you tell recent high school graduates? Advice for students in the Diploma Programme (IB DP)? / If you could give ISPP’s current Grade 12 class some advice at their graduation, what would it be?
At 16 and upon entering my first year in IB, I remember many relatives telling me to quickly find a “passion”. Finding something that I was truly passionate about and pursuing it would help me find purpose. This was horrible advice.
I had numerous passions, a variety of interests and endless hobbies. It was difficult for me to translate my passions into a clear career path. I had always loved the outdoors and enjoyed conservation, however, my choice to study biology/zoology was quite a last-minute decision.
I have two bits of advice. The crucial, most important bit of advice would be to always stay curious. There is still an unimaginable wealth of knowledge and infinite avenues of exploration open to each new generation of high school graduates. Being curious will help in expanding your worldview. My last piece of advice would be to go at your own pace. I know many people who dive into a career path, discover they don’t align well with it and change careers. Your interests and aspirations over time may change and there is no correct blueprint for how you should live your life. Taking time to correctly assess your priorities and discover new passions is important. There is no need to rush.

Do you think it’s okay to not have clear plans for your future?
Absolutely. However, I think it is important to have a general framework of what you want to achieve and how to go about it. I found it incredibly daunting at 16 having to choose my IB courses as I was told this would directly impact my career opportunities in the future. It is always better to have a plan but feeling uncertain or unclear about your goals is a feeling everyone encounters. At the same time, it is important to recognise the privilege of choice. Not everyone can be uncertain about their future plans. Receiving a good education, stability and support provide numerous opportunities that are inaccessible to many and come with responsibility.

This interview was first published in the ISPP Pulse Magazine (May – July 2023).
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