Lessons from Loung Ung

May 17, 2018, 2:31 a.m.

After seeing Loung Ung, author of “First They Killed My Father,” speak at a recent event organized by the Stanford Khmer Association, I was more than a little shook. I don’t know what I expected going into the event, but I came out of it with a few new life lessons.

To shorten and do a disservice to the Loung Ung’s experience, but for the sake of context, Loung Ung was a child when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975. As she fled with her family, she did everything possible to survive in the violent and horrible conditions imposed by the Khmer Rouge. Both of her parents and two of her sisters were among the estimated two million Cambodians who were lost in the genocide. Eventually, Ung managed to escape Cambodia with her brother and finally ended up in the United States, where she went on to work as an activist. She has published several books about her journey.

In terms of shock value, one sentence is still left lingering in my mind days later: “You’re not special.” Of course, this wasn’t meant derogatively. Ung prefaced this by saying, “I’m not special.” At face value, these statements can be deprecating, but what Loung Ung explained, at least in my understanding, was that there wasn’t particularly anything special about her that got her to where she was today. Working hard just to survive and making a conscious choice to fight for what she believed in, even when she could only do so in small ways, got her this far.

In the context of Stanford this is particularly interesting because of the effect Stanford has as soon as you leave its campus. Every time I go home to Georgia and I’m making small talk, if Stanford comes up there’s always a surprised and slightly awed, “You’re going to Stanford?” from whoever I’m talking to. I’m not gonna lie, that reminder that you’re in the four-point-something percent of applicants is definitely ego fodder, but there could have been any one of hundreds or even thousands of other students sitting where I am right now, and the fact that I’m here and they’re not isn’t a product of some innate specialness that made me better than them; it was a product of my efforts and quite a bit of luck.

Life-shattering perspective changes aside, hearing Loung Ung speak reminded me of the importance of stories not just for those who read or see them in books or movies, but for those who write them as well. Loung Ung said that when she originally began writing her story, it wasn’t with the intent of having it published, it was for herself. It helped her to work through her experiences and see them differently. As someone who loves writing and often uses it as a tool in a similar manner, that’s definitely something that resonated with me. Writing is often just as important to the writers as it is to the readers, if not more so.

Basically, I learned to remember that I’m not special and to write more. It may not sound like much, but I think these are nevertheless valuable lessons that can and will help with the stress that often accompanies the rigorous nature of Stanford.


Contact Kiara Harding at kiluha ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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