Understanding the life aspirations of urban adolescents in Cambodia

teen girl standing on city street in Cambodia, looking up
Image: Adobe Stock / Jared Wicklund

Penn State research team finds four profiles of adolescent future expectations: family focused, professional/service focused, high expectations, and low expectations

Adolescents are tasked with navigating competing priorities, including whether to marry, have children, pursue a job/career, go to college, and contribute to society. A paper recently published in Developmental Psychology describes one of the first studies to examine how adolescents in a developing country such as Cambodia negotiate substantially greater access to educational and professional opportunities against a backdrop of strong religious and family traditions.

Bo Cleveland, Penn State professor of human development and family studies, led the research team that developed, conducted, and analyzed a survey of students in six schools in and around Siem Reap, a city in Cambodia. Their survey of 580 students in grades 7-12 asked about their perceived likelihood of achieving various life goals across familial, educational, vocational and community-oriented domains. 

“Siem Reap’s unique combination of rich tradition and rapid change provided an important look at the potential implications of such rapid economic and social change during a critical developmental period for adolescents’ future orientation,” said Kyler Knapp, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies and the paper’s first author. 

The research team applied latent profile analysis (LPA) to the survey data to reveal four profiles of future expectations: family focused, professional/service focused, high expectations, and low expectations. LPA allowed the researchers to identify subgroups of adolescents who shared similar characteristics and future expectations.

2 men standing in front of monuments in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Bo Cleveland and Kyler Knapp at the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, the largest religious monument in the world. Photo provided.

“LPA allowed us to explore the premise that expectations across life domains may cluster in meaningful ways, such that there were distinct subgroups of adolescents whose members demonstrated similar future expectation patterns to one another across multiple domains and different patterns from members of other groups,” said Knapp. “We felt that considering future expectations across multiple life domains independently, without regard to interdependence among domains, could only tell part of the story of how adolescents develop expectations for their futures.”

The team’s second goal was to identify factors associated with adolescents’ odds of possessing particular constellations of future expectations. They considered demographic characteristics (e.g., adolescent gender, current grade level, parent education), as well as adolescents’ internal locus of control, sense of family obligation, and relational closeness with mothers and fathers. Their findings are summarized in the figure below. 

Family Focused (High marriage/parenthood but low professional expectations)

·       31% of the sample; largest profile

·       Adolescents with higher locus of control and family obligation had lower odds of membership

·       Adolescents in higher grade levels had higher odds of membership

Professional/Service Focused (High education/employment/societal, low marriage/parenthood expectations)

·       27% of the sample

·       Females and adolescents with closer relationships with fathers had higher odds of membership

·       Adolescents with higher family obligation and closer relationships with mothers had lower odds of membership

High Expectations (High expectations across all domains)

·       30% of the sample

·       Adolescents with higher locus of control and family obligation had higher odds of membership

Low Expectations (Low expectations across all domains)

·       12% of the sample; smallest profile

·       Adolescents with higher locus of control and family obligation had lower odds of membership

Figure 1. Profiles of future aspirations of adolescents in Cambodia based upon a 2018 survey conducted in Siem Reap. Note: Profile membership prediction was evaluated using the high expectations profile as the reference group; membership prediction for the high expectations profile was evaluated in reference to the low expectations profile.

“One of the highlights from our findings is how adolescents’ self-determination and sense of control over making their own decisions may underscore their expectations for their futures,” Knapp said. “A strong internal locus of control may be an important characteristic of adolescents with higher future expectations in work, education, and service domains that could ultimately lead to social mobility in the long-term.”

Knapp also suggested that members of the professional/service focused group may aspire to help rebuild their country in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took place roughly 40 years ago.

The research team returned to Cambodia in 2019 to present their preliminary findings to a group of non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, including representatives from the organization that sponsored the participating schools and helped to facilitate the research.

Knapp presenting to group of representatives from non-governmental organizations.

Penn State undergraduate students watch as Kyler Knapp presents preliminary findings to local NGO leaders in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo provided.

Reflecting on his experiences in Cambodia, Knapp said, “it taught me about the importance of working in partnership with key community stakeholders throughout the research process, from the study’s inception and development of study measures through analysis of the data, for increasing its relevance and usefulness to the population being studied.”

Ulziimaa Chimed-Ochir, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies at Penn State and Sothy Eng, assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, joined Kyler in Siem Reap to collect the data. Gregory Fosco, associate director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and professor of human development and family studies contributed measures to the survey and advice on the manuscript. Robert Roeser, Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion and professor of human development and family studies, used his Fulbright experience in India to guide the research team in selecting measures appropriate for studying adolescents in the rapidly changing economic and cultural context in which the study took place. Hannah Apsley, Bennett Pierce Graduate Fellow in Caring and Compassion and graduate student in human development and family studies, contributed to the journal article’s development.

This work was supported by Penn State through funding from the Douglas Research Endowment and the Edward R. and Helen Skade Hintz Graduate Educational Enhancement Fellowship.

People Mentioned in this Article

Bo Cleveland Hannah Apsley Greg Fosco Robert W. Roeser