BY Corinne Lestch
DAILY NEWS WRITER
Friday, February 18th 2011
Manhattan College Prof. Helene Tyler, center in photo taken at Phnom Penh airport, rallied to have 18-year-old Kimsy Tor brought over to New York on a full scholarship after teaching her during a math
Manhattan College Professor Helene Tyler was teaching an advanced math course in Cambodia last month when a young woman, bright beyond her years, immediately caught her eye.
All of the students in the class had at least four more years of education than Kimsy Tor, 18, one of six children from a poor family.
But "she just threw herself into it and learned like I rarely see," said Tyler.
In the weeks since Tyler returned home, the professor has been quietly rallying to have Tor enrolled in Manhattan on a full scholarship.
Thursday, the Riverdale college's admissions department told Tyler that Tor has been accepted to study mathematics this September.
"Knowing how much she loves to learn, I'm just so excited that she now has \[this\] opportunity," said a choked-up Tyler.
She immediately sent Tor an email with the good news - even though it was 2:30 a.m. in Cambodia.
"Her background and interest in pursuing the type of educational opportunity we have at Manhattan is very consistent with our mission," said William Bisset, vice president of enrollment. "She's an extraordinary student."
It wouldn't have happened had not all the celestial charts and graphs been aligned, said Tyler.
She visited the Southeast Asian nation last month to voluntarily teach at the local university in Phnom Penh.
In a strategic move, the Cambodian education minister planted Tor, a recent high school graduate, in Tyler's master's course.
"It was a well-conceived plan," Tyler said with a laugh.
During the span of the four-week course, Tyler realized Tor belonged with the older students.
Tyler noticed Tor's attentiveness right away, and said she began talking to her during class breaks. The education minister organized a trip for them to a wildlife preserve, and Tyler could tell that Tor would be able to handle the pressure of leaving her family and culture.
Tyler learned that Tor is an avid Jane Austen reader and tennis player. Her parents, though considered middle-class by Cambodian standards, are poor tailors who make traditional wedding outfits.
Since the brutal Khmer Rouge rule ended in the late 1970s, Cambodians have suffered economically and academically. About one-third of the people live below the poverty line and are illiterate.
According to the education minister, Chan Roath, there are only four resident citizens who hold doctorate degrees in mathematics.
Tyler said that although she is excited that Tor will be able to broaden her horizons, the issue of money still looms.
"Now the big task is for \[Manhattan\] to secure the necessary funds through whatever available scholarship resources there are," she said. "She'd need everything - full tuition, room and board, books, a plane ticket."
Bisset said Tor definitely qualifies for merit-based scholarships.
Tyler said the hardships people like Tor have faced make the possibility of studying here a rare opportunity.
"Investing today for the future is part of the American psyche, but it's not part of the Cambodian psyche," she said.
"So seeing it from someone over there was just unusual and a bit more inspiring."