Helping Our Students Soar: Mikaela's Story

Photo of students at Angkor Wat Temple Complex
Students visit the Angkor Wat Temple complex on a UTM Abroad experience.

Mikaela Clarke joined a UTM Study Abroad trip to Cambodia hoping to inspire others. Instead, they inspired her.
Mikaela Clarke
Mikaela Clarke

When Mikaela Clarke told her parents that she planned to spend Reading Week in Cambodia as part of a UTM Study Abroad experience, their response wasn’t what she hoped.

“My mom gave me 1,000 reasons to worry and my dad straight up asked, ‘What’s the point?’”

The truth was Mikaela was worried. As a young Black woman who identifies as LGBTQ, she was unsure how she might be received in Cambodia. A sociology class research project she completed before the trip painted a picture of a country in which it wasn’t entirely safe to come out as gay.

“I feared that I was so noticeably different, that I would stand out and in a bad way,” she says.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

During the 10-day trip led by UTM Professor Erik Schneiderhan, Mikaela and her 10 classmates explored the history and culture of Cambodia and the Cambodian genocide through a sociological lens. They stayed with families in a rural village and met with community leaders at a local NGO, the chief of police and, in a surprise addition to the itinerary, a local high school class.

It was there that Mikaela’s life was turned upside-down. In a small group discussion facilitated by a translator, she met two young students who openly identified as gay.

“I went into this thinking that I was the outlier and then I met a smiling boy who was quick to tell me, ‘I’m just like you.’ The whole time I was thinking I’d tell them about my life and my girlfriend and maybe inspire them, but their joy, their openness, their willingness to share inspired me.”

Over the course of the half-day visit, Mikaela felt her fears wash away.

“I realized sticking out isn’t a bad thing at all and looking different doesn’t mean you’re unwelcome. It was life-changing for me.”

She returned home full of hope and plans for a future that includes research, volunteer experiences and learning abroad. After graduating with her undergraduate degree in criminology and political science this spring, Mikaela started a year-long research position with Professor Schneiderhan leading to a Master’s program in 2024.

But not before visiting her parents to tell them what she now understands to be the point of her UTM Study Abroad experience.

“The point was to connect with other people and other experiences and not in a transactional, sightseeing way. I got to talk to people, learn from them and have them learn from me and it was invaluable in my book. The point was to get out of my shell and remember that the world is so much bigger and that’s an amazing thing.”