International Student Arrives at Occidental as Inaugural SHE-CAN Scholar

Laura Paisley Photos by Marc Campos

First-year student Villathina Ly of Cambodia builds on an impressive academic and community service resume as well as a passion for international relations.

Getting the best possible education has always been a priority for Villathina “Thina” Ly ’27.

Growing up in the capital city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Ly’s parents always encouraged their only child to attain her highest possible educational potential. It was particularly important to Ly’s mother, who herself had not been able to finish high school. She has subsequently played a “huge role” in her daughter’s pursuit of education.

Ly graduated from high school as one of the top students in her class, but her achievements and activities extend well beyond the classroom. Ly is passionate about public speaking and began participating in school competitions as a sixth-grader. By tenth grade, she was named the 2018 champion of the NTC Public Speaking Competition, beating out 82 other contestants.

Her high school did not offer clubs or extracurricular activities, so Ly took the initiative to find volunteer opportunities. First, she assisted young students by helping them prepare for the national exams and their career paths. Later, she volunteered as a writer and a public relations officer at The SEED Cambodia, a nonprofit digital platform that fosters a national reading culture and hosts panel discussions and public lectures related to international relations.

Ly also had a satisfying experience volunteering with Global Peace Alliance Cambodia teaching English to young, underprivileged students. 

“I loved that they were so eager to learn from us and learn English,” Ly says. “That made my whole experience really meaningful.”

With a little help from her friends

Ly knew she wanted to go to college abroad in order to develop her fullest potential. After extensively researching scholarship opportunities, she discovered SHE-CAN, a nonprofit organization that provides young women from post-conflict countries access to higher education and a path to leadership.

SHE-CAN is a comprehensive program that recruits high-achieving scholars in Cambodia, Liberia and Guatemala. It prepares them for college and provides dedicated mentorship and leadership training throughout four years at a top institution in the United States. Equally important, scholars are supported in winning scholarships to remove financial barriers.

Occidental joined SHE-CAN as one of 12 Coalition Colleges in 2022. With her interests, Ly was particularly drawn to the College.

“I have always been interested in international relations, and Occidental has a strong Diplomacy & World Affairs program, plus Oxy at the UN, the John Parke Young Initiative on the Global Political Economy, and the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs—all the opportunities I need to achieve my dream of becoming a diplomat.”

I have always been interested in international relations, and Occidental has ... all the opportunities I need to achieve my dream of becoming a diplomat.

The SHE-CAN application process is extensive, including essays, interviews, group discussions and leadership speeches. Once she was accepted as a candidate, she furthered her preparations by taking the SATs and perfecting her English. As part of the program, she also led a community service project in which she collaborated with a waste management company to initiate weekly trash pickup activities in her community.

Once Ly was selected as a SHE-CAN Scholar, she was matched with six professional women in the U.S. who served as personal mentors for her. She worked with them on Zoom, both individually and at monthly group meetings designed to track her progress and bond as a team. They advised and guided Ly on everything from financial aid, school selection, college application essay writing and visa documents.

“They were there when I hit the submit button on my college application and they were also there when I reviewed my admission decision,” Ly says.

After her acceptance to Occidental, their mentorship roles transitioned to areas including academics, internship opportunities, leadership, health and wellness, and finances. While being hosted by one mentor in San Francisco when Ly first arrived in the U.S., two other mentors from Colorado and Seattle also came to visit. Another mentor came to visit her on campus in October during Homecoming & Family Weekend.

“They're like my Moms now,” Ly laughs.

Thina Ly sits at a table on the patio of Academic Commons on campus

Settling in at Occidental

This fall, Ly arrived on campus as the College’s first SHE-CAN scholar. Underwritten by the Lindsey Memorial Scholarship and other resources, Ly will receive full tuition, room and board for four years. Created by Mary Lindsey Collins ’25 and supported by Glenn and Cheryl Ray Hickerson, the Lindsey Memorial Scholarship honors Sarah Lindsey Hickerson ’23 and Eugenia Lindsey ’22.

Ly’s favorite classes this semester are Principles of Economics I and Authoritarianism in the Age of Globalization. She says the most surprising thing about college in the U.S. is the abundance of resources and help available to students. So far she has taken advantage of faculty office hours, peer tutoring and working with writing mentors at the Writing Center, her “favorite place on campus.”

She is also working at the International Programs Office, supervised by Associate Director of International Programs Marisa Grover Mofford.

“Thina is thoughtful, engaged, enthusiastic and grateful,” Grover Mofford says. “She’s very committed. I hope the SHE-CAN organization can send Oxy more Thinas!”

As she adjusts to college, Ly is prioritizing her academics, but she’s interested in getting involved in clubs like Model UN and sustainability initiatives like the FEAST Organic Garden. She would also like to start a club that brings Oxy students out into the community as volunteers.

“I expect that my college experience will allow me to become a better version of myself,” Ly says.

Reflecting on the future

Ly says she sometimes wonders what she would be doing if she hadn’t encountered SHE-CAN, acknowledging that the program has changed her life.

“Being a SHE-CAN scholar connects me to many different amazing women and I’m so lucky and grateful for those opportunities. The experience reinforces my aspiration to become a changemaker for my society and for the world in general.”

Ly is honored to be part of the SHE-CAN community. She says she feels empowered and inspired by amazing women every day, be it her mentors, the SHE-CAN staff, or her fellow SHE-CAN sisters, who have been a great source of support.

Being a SHE-CAN scholar connects me to many different amazing women and I’m so lucky and grateful for those opportunities. The experience reinforces my aspiration to become a changemaker for my society and for the world in general.

“We are all on the same boat working to create change as female leaders, so it's a precious and eye-opening experience for me.”

Ly plans to return to Cambodia after she graduates, where she wants to represent her country as a diplomat and take part in negotiation, conflict resolution and maintaining peace.

“Cambodia has gone through a lot,” says Ly, in terms of civil wars and the Khmer Rouge—a brutal, genocidal communist regime that ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s.

“Maintaining good relationships between Cambodia and other parts of the word is crucial. I would like the opportunity to contribute to the diplomatic field in my country and improve the standards of living of the Cambodian people.”