PHNOM PENH - Soeurng Sambath grew up as the youngest of seven siblings in an impoverished farming village at a time when Cambodia was emerging from decades of civil war, genocide and bloodshed.
During Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979, an estimated 1.7 million people were killed or died from starvation, disease or hard labor, including many among the educated classes. Years of conflict followed, even after the Khmer Rouge was removed from power.
"People in Cambodia in the 1970s and '80s lived in darkness," said Mr. Soeurng, 22. "For my generation, we have a chance to push our country forward."
Mr. Soeurng, who expects to graduate this summer from a pioneering social work program, hopes to be a part of that change.
In 2008, the Royal University of Phnom Penh started the first four-year bachelor's program in the country to train social workers, a field traditionally dominated by foreign aid workers and local counterparts with little formal preparation. Last year, 22 students graduated; Mr. Soeurng is expected to be part of the second graduating class.
The program recently grew to 30 students, but the university has been careful not to expand too quickly, since it wants to maintain teaching quality and ensure that students are being placed into good jobs.
"Social work degree programs are new to Cambodia," said Meng Dalin, head of the university's department of social work. "These students are the first."
Another program was introduced in 2012 by the governmental National Institute of Social Affairs, with its first class expected to graduate in 2016.
Cambodia relies heavily on foreign aid and expertise to deal with problems like poverty, human trafficking, AIDS, hidden land mines and mental health issues caused by traumatic events.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, there are 2,465 registered nongovernmental organizations and associations in the country, though many are inactive or very small. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of NGOs per capita in the world.
"When the foreign NGOs first came, it was hard to see how we could have done it without them," Ms. Meng said. "So much of our human resources were completely destroyed, and we had to start rebuilding with very few educated people."
But, she added, "Now we need to look at dependence issues, and how their continual presence affects our human development. Only locals are going to stay here long term and help build the country for years and years."
Sann Ratana, 24, was born in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where he lived for the first four years of his life before he and his family moved inland to start farming again. He joined the first social work class, graduating last year and joining a Korean NGO.
"I wanted to contribute to society, and social work can help me help the communities and people where I am from," he said at the university's small auxiliary campus, which houses the fledgling social work department and its 12 faculty members.
"Thankfully there was a lot of demand for us," he said, adding that all his classmates had found good jobs since graduating, mostly at foreign organizations.
In the past, local social workers were trained only while on the job, or not at all.
"Cambodian social workers have good experience after years of work, but little theory training or larger understanding of the field," said Dr. Luise Ahrens, who has worked to deliver aid to Cambodia for 22 years and who pushed for the establishment of social work programs in the country.
To create their program, R.U.P.P. worked with the University of Washington, which covered tuition and other expenses so that Cambodian social workers could study for their master's degrees in Seattle and then return to Cambodia to lead the new program. Six of R.U.P.P.'s social work faculty members have done so since 2006.
"In all honesty, there should have been greater attention given to human capacity building 10 years ago in Cambodia," said Tracy Harachi, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington.
"I don't think people have spent enough time systematically training Cambodians long term," Dr. Harachi said.
Most NGOs in Cambodia are still led by foreign managers and supported by foreign funding, leading to worries about what will happen when overseas support dwindles.
"Many donors are leaving Cambodia - it is happening in many places around the world, donor fatigue - so by default the government and local people need to take over supplying social programs," Dr. Harachi said.
"The government is increasing the social work budget every year, but still only in limited amounts," said Saneth Vathna, president of the National Institute of Social Affairs. "Right now we need a lot of trained social workers in Cambodia."
In 2009, R.U.P.P. began working with Ewha Womans University in South Korea on a two-year master's program in Cambodia to train those already working in the field. About a dozen students enrolled in its first year.
One challenge is explaining to Cambodians what social work is, exactly. In a society historically accustomed to short-term assistance, like food and medical aid, social workers now have to build the foundations of long-term programs.
"In the 1980s, people desperately needed rice and shelter," Ms. Meng said. "After the genocide period, there wasn't social work in Cambodia, just charity."
Mr. Soeurng said that most people in Cambodia still believed in charity rather than social work.
"They want handouts," Mr. Soeurng said. "When I was growing up, there were beggars everywhere."
Nob Sreyleak, 21, a fellow student of social work, said, "Someday the NGOs won't have funds to spend here, so then how will Cambodia's poor survive?"
That, she added, was why Cambodians needed "to build our own capacity towards sustainability."
The specter of the Khmer Rouge still haunts Cambodia, particularly as former Khmer Rouge have only in the last few years been brought to trial for atrocities committed more than three decades ago.
"The trials have really brought emotions back up," said Chun Bora, a specialist on H.I.V. and AIDS who works in the social work department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. "Social workers are needed now to support those people who are dealing with their repressed feelings."