Remembering Phalla

The Spitler School Foundation mourns the loss of one of our graduates, Phalla Oudom Teav, who recently passed away from a motorcycle accident. One long-standing member of the SSF community, Jim Latt, knew Phalla well and shares this touching tribute.

Remembering Phalla

I remember as a volunteer at Spitler School helping in the grade 5 classroom. This was early in my volunteering experience and I often marveled at how engaged and enthusiastic these young learners were, all on a bowl of rice and a sweet drink. This was where I was introduced to Phalla Oudom Teav, a particularly engaged 10-year-old with an obvious thirst to learn. He was quite social and well-liked by his peers.

Towards the end of that school year, some generous donors were touring the school and classrooms.  They had contributed towards infrastructure, building a classroom and other sorts of material support for Spitler School.  Director Chea Sarin and some staff helped guide the donors around and an interesting question came from one of the visitors. While standing outside the 5th and 6th grade classrooms he asked Sarin, “Who is the smartest student in the school?” Without a blink of the eye, Sarin responded, “That would be Phalla. He’s the boy over there in the 5th grade classroom.” The gentleman pondered Sarin’s response and asked some of the staff the same question, including the 6th grade teacher. They all responded, “Phalla.” And at that moment Phalla became what was known among the children to be “the lucky one.” This gentleman proposed sponsoring Phalla, because he believed his talents, intellect and drive would be enhanced if he could help support this boy. Over the subsequent weeks a plan was hatched where Phalla and his entire family would begin a journey of support and discovery through this man’s generosity. The basic plan was that as long as Phalla and his family liked, the man would pay the bills, and find opportunities for Phalla to excel. And, he would support his development through University and possibly beyond. And, this is exactly the path Phalla embarked upon.

After grade 6 graduation at Spitler School Phalla was able to enroll in one of the only International Schools in Siem Reap. The lessons followed a rigorous British curriculum and was delivered in English only.  Phalla was up for the challenge and was able to get some private English tutoring along the way.  It became obvious to everyone at the school and elsewhere that Phalla was an intellectually talented and hard-working young man. I became a sort of liaison for Phalla and his family to the donor who was in Europe. Coincidentally, my rental house happened to be next door to the International School, and I was able to engage with staff frequently and become friends with the owners of the school.  Phalla stayed on at this school through high school.  He passed his “A-Level” exams with flying colors. He was quite an athlete and excelled in this domain also. 

Next was to consider University and the options were abundant (including Europe, Singapore, SE Asia).  Phalla chose Bangkok as his first institution for higher learning.  A mere 1-hour plane trip from family and home (or 8 hours overland by bus).  I stayed in touch with Phalla as he navigated Bangkok and started his academic career at the university level.  I frequently traveled to Bangkok and in fact was there his first week when he was outfitting his apartment and trying not to appear totally freaked out!  It became our routine where we would catch up on his activities over a great meal (usually steak)….what college kid would turn down a free meal? While at Stamford University, Bangkok; Phalla propelled himself into all campus life, kept excellent grades, and was able to hone his leadership skills.  He often took the lead in managing fellow students in group projects. By now his English was impeccable. Once, at dinner, he shared his frustration with some of his classmates saying, “these kids just don’t know how to work!”.  Phalla worked! He became the captain of the champion volley ball team.  He also ran a campaign to join the Student Council.  He had to delay his graduation for 1 year due to the Covid pandemic.  But, happily and deservedly, Phalla Oudom Teav graduated from Stamford University with a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) with specialization in Finance and Banking.

Following graduation, he secured some work in Phnom Penh (a 6-hour bus ride to his hometown and family). Since I was frequently in Phnom Penh, I was able to get updates on Phalla’s work, and plans for the future. He was considering graduate study but wanted some solid work experience first. He secured a junior executive position in a large prestigious Real Estate and Development Firm in the capital city. He secured this position entirely through his own efforts. No special favors, no secret hand-shakes. Within his first months at the firm he was tasked to take team leader roles for projects. In this short time, the executives at the firm saw the capacity of this young, humble, multi-lingual, superstar. I was amazed to see a picture of Phalla, in a three-piece suit, at the podium, on stage with a hand-held microphone leading a corporate seminar (Powerpoint….of course)! He was becoming the face of the company in only months. Just a few weeks before the accident, I saw some video and photos of Phalla once again leading a presentation in a ballroom summarizing the company’s projects, progress, goals and plans. He had also just been placed as team leader of the research team advising a mega-corporation planning a massive development in SouthWest Cambodia. 

His flame was burning bright. He was a star. He was a devoted loving son and supportive brother.  He was “the lucky one.”  

(Jim Latt is a long-time volunteer who was instrumental in developing SSF’s English program and continues to be a valued advisor to our schools.)

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