• A Cambodian Refugee’s Journey in the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Sophal Ear, Ph.D.

    In 1976, young Sophal Ear crossed the border from Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia to Vietnam.Fast-forward 40 years: In 2016, he was inducted into The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Now an associate professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, Ear has made a dramatic journey from being a Phnom Penh refugee in Hanoi to college faculty member in Los Angeles.

Ear’s life story, as described in his 2009 TED Talk and 2015 TEDx Talk, is peopled with hidden superheroes along the way. Just one year after the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, Ear’s mother made the difficult and risky decision to escape with her family into Vietnam. Assuming a fabricated identity, her rudimentary Vietnamese allowed her to pass her family off as Vietnamese nationals. Ear’s father passed away before their journey began.

While in Vietnam, a French citizen, deciding to take up their cause, sponsored Ear’s family. Their sponsor found a woman with the same last name as Ear’s mother in the phonebook, and convinced her to claim them as relatives and sponsor their move to France. In 1985, an aunt in California sponsored the family’s move to the United States. 

Ear started school in the U.S. at age ten by being placed in the 7th grade in English as a Second Language classes, where he remained until a special day during his first year at Berkeley High School. “The only time my mom ever came to my school (when not for graduation) was when she was required to sign me out of ESL later that semester. I wonder to this day what would have happened if she’d been unavailable,” recounted Ear. 

Since that day, he excelled academically, graduating from the University of California, Berkeley at age 20 and earning a Master’s of Public Administration at age 22 from Princeton. Shortly thereafter he began working for the World Bank, which inspired him to return to UC Berkeley for three more degrees, including his Ph.D. in Political Science. 

His mother is the biggest source of inspiration for Ear’s academic pursuits. “While she herself had a fourth grade education, she knew that her children could not succeed without a love of learning and the trappings of a formal education,” he said. This love of learning extends to a keen appreciation of the liberal arts and sciences, which he credits for his problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Ear has used his education to work closely with issues relating to foreign aid in post-conflict countries, specifically with issues in U.S.-Cambodian relations. He worked for the United Nations in 2002 in newly independent East Timor, before teaching political economy and post-conflict reconstruction to junior military officers at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California for seven years.  

To Ear, liberal arts and sciences education is essential to the fabric of society. “In the end, it is the ability to think, evaluate, and communicate that makes us who we are. The wealth of a nation is not how much stuff it has, but its people. Liberal arts and sciences education unlocks their potential.”

In addition to his academic accomplishments, Ear has written two books, narrated a documentary, and served on the board of several nonprofit organizations plus a three-year term on the Crescenta Valley (California) Town Council.  Ear is also a dedicated father of four children and a loving husband to his wife Chamnan Lim.

This year Ear was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Describing his induction as “the fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” he credits his induction to the incredible support of his fellow faculty members of the Occidental College Phi Beta Kappa chapter. 

What does lifelong learning after Phi Beta Kappa induction entail for Ear? “I want to learn how to be a better dad to my four little ones without having had the benefit of a father in my life,” he said. “I don’t want to give them the challenges of my refugee experience, but I want them to get the advantages: languages, resilience, and striving attitudes.”