Thailand is full of random adventures, and I myself have had many since my arrival, but I thought this week I would clue you all in a little more on the reason for my being in Thailand—my studies in Khon Kaen.
My program through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) has a catchy name, Development and Globalization (DG), but you may wonder what actually falls under this umbrella term? My answer? I’m still figuring it out. In the information packet I received, I understood this program as one that allows me the opportunity to “study complex environmental, development, and globalization issues.” It has done that, and so much more.
Unlike our sister program, Public Health, the DG program is not associated with Khon Kaen University near our CIEE school headquarters. It is an entirely separate program that has its own educational model that is much different from most classroom learning models. This program focuses on learning from a ‘human perspective’ by speaking with villagers, NGOs, and government officials among other individuals in the Northeastern Isaan region of Thailand.
This semester, our program focused on the development and globalization issues of organic agriculture, water management, land rights, mining, and also did a Laos agricultural comparative unit. These five units are primarily student-led and are divided into two-week segments. The first week is comprised of reading…reading…and more reading. In this mix, we also have a few guest lectures, Thai language courses and Thai peer tutor sessions focused on our unit topic as well as two discussion and information-based meetings led by the two student unit facilitators. These “UFac” individuals are responsible for not only planning this week, but also providing the link between the Thai ‘ajaan’ professor’s as well as preparing for the following week of exchanges.
In the second half of the unit, our 10-person DG group, two ajaans, and our beloved ‘wan’ driver make the trek to the local village affected by the development issue we are studying. Throughout our five-day stay, we speak with villagers about their situations and struggles to gain an overview of the issues facing the area. In order to view the situation from the other side, we also meet with government officials who offer the political context. Additionally, we interview local Non-government organizations and NGO persons who are knowledgeable on the subject not only in our current focus area, but also in other areas throughout Thailand.
Something especially unique about this program is that, during this week of unit exchanges, we actually live with villagers. Two DG students are assigned to one family and homestay, and we reside with them all week. Being able to follow them through their daily routines, learn to cook traditional foods from them, take showers with a bucket of water and a bowl, help them in their garden, round up the qwai (water buffalo), and communicate with them as well as we are able has really made this semester something special for me. In such a short time, we seem to become a member of the ‘krop kruwah’ (family). I have been “a daughter to them” and have even cried when I left some of my homestays. These families have not only taught me so much about Thai language and the social justice issues they face, but they have taught me the true meaning of kindness and making someone ‘feel at home.’
Upon arrival in Khon Kaen, our group is tasked with making a unit ‘output.’This final project is supposed to be a reflection of what we learned over the past two weeks, and often incorporates aspects that would benefit the affected community in some way. After brainstorming as a group, we work vigorously to finish our project and plan a two-hour “workshop” where we present our findings to our ajaan professors and student interns. Some unit outputs have included a lesson plan on organic agriculture, a 25 page report on organic farming barriers, info-graphics concerning land rights issues, paintings reflecting Laotian agency and dependency, and an information packet provided to the European Union before a visit to a mining affected community.
Following this workshop is the ever so popular “plus, minus, delta” evaluation where we evaluate as a group what we did great and what could have been done better. Additionally, we have a “sadthi” quaker-style meeting to allow personal reflection and expression of our current feelings after an educationally and emotionally exhausting week. Finally, it is time for a good night’s sleep before the repeat.
I have to be honest with all of you. In the beginning of the program, I thought I was in over my head. I saw the little black program planner book as daunting with so many scheduled classes and outside exchanges. I questioned how much time I would have to myself. Yes, I am fully aware that I signed up to ‘study abroad’ but I questioned how much studying was too much abroad. This program is far from what might seem like traditional abroad expectations. I may have not hopped from country to country every other weekend and I may not have shared experiences with many other Richmond students, but I was able to really see Thailand for all its beautiful wonders and civil flaws. I was able to see big city lights and little village dirt roads, I became a ‘regular’ at the local coffee shop, I befriended the coconut ice cream stand lady who knows my order by heart, and I was able to reflect on all these things and more as time passed me by. Although I am sad to be leaving here in a few short weeks, I know that this place, those Thai villagers, and my program friends was, and always will be, a home and family to me.