Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Hoffman


Hannah is an Environmental Studies major and psychology minor at Macalester College. In her free time, she likes to sing and hike.

Why did you choose this program?

I knew from the beginning that I did not want a traditional study abroad experience. I did not want to go to Europe and I wanted to study something that was special to the country I would be studying in.

The main reason I chose this program is because of its emphasis on experiential learning, as students visit four different villages throughout the Isaan region of Thailand, and got to spend one week living in each village. I was also very interested in learning about human rights issues, especially as they pertain to environmental issues. Finally, I chose Thailand because I wanted to challenge myself by experiencing a culture that was completely new to me, as I had never before been out of the Western world.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The program provider, CIEE, organized almost everything. They organized my housing, my ride from the airport in Thailand to a hotel in Bangkok (which they rented for us), activities on some weekends and weekdays, and they even gave us materials for taking notes. The only things we had to organize on our own were our flights to and from Bangkok, our meals (when not in villages), and whatever independent weekend travel we did.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

The biggest piece of advice I would give to someone going on this program would be that this program is what you make of it. I had an incredible time on this program and learned more than I normally do in a regular semester, but that is only because I wanted to learn and I wanted to make a real impact on the lives of the villagers that we talked with.

This program is largely influenced by what the students are interested in learning about, so if you come in curious and wanting to learn, you most definitely will. But if you come in expecting to play on your computer during class, then of course, you will not learn as much.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

This question is a hard to answer because there was no consistent schedule, but I will try my best.

In general, the program was divided into 5 units. For each unit, one week was spent on campus preparing, and the second week was spent in community. we always spent the Monday after a community visit working all day as a group on what is called the unit output. While on campus, we typically had class starting around 9. In the beginning, we often had Thai class from 9-12, but as time went on, we had less Thai classes and instead might have a social research methods class in the morning, or a cross-cultural session.

We always had lunch from 12-1. After 1, if it was the Thursday before a community visit, we would have two lectures: one lecture by a government official, and one lecture given by a representative of the people’s movement. Afternoon classes also were sometimes sessions led by the students in charge of that unit, in which students asked discussion questions and prepared questions for community visits. Usually, class ended around 3 or 4, and never later than 5.

While in community, we usually woke up around 7 to eat breakfast with our host families. Around 9 am, we would meet as a group and either spend the morning talking with villagers, talking to a government official, or touring the village. Afternoons also included talking with groups of people and every Wednesday afternoon we had a mid-unit check-in led by the unit facilitators. There was also always one day in community, usually Thursday’s, where we should spend the day with our host families either working in the farm and around the house, or just hanging out, reading, and trying to talk with our hosts. In community, we usually went to bed around 9 pm and we always came back from community on Friday afternoon/evening.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I think my biggest fear was a general sense having no idea what to expect. Before coming on the program, I was so anxious that I was not even excited to study in Thailand. I knew nothing about Thailand and very little about human rights, and I just felt completely unprepared. But once I arrived, I realized that I was totally fine. I quickly realized that while Thailand was very different, it also had many similarities and because the sense of community on my program was so strong, anytime I felt anxious or upset about something, I had a great support system to fall back on.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your time abroad?

I really loved my program so much and had one of the best semesters of my life. There are a few final points I want to share:

  1. This was a nontraditional program and learning environment. We took classes, but we didn’t sit in the classroom at the same time every day and take notes on the same subjects. It was all very integrated, which is why a typical day is hard to describe. Spending a week in each community was the highlight for sure, but the group process was also important. Teachers were there to guide us, but for the most part, we students were our own teachers, in control of what and how we learned.
  2. I mentioned that we visited four villages and spent a week living and learning in each one. As a group, we spent a lot of time discussing what it means to be an American student coming into a Thai village to learn for just one week. In the beginning, we often felt uncomfortable, as if we took more than we gave. But at the end of each unit, there is a unit output, in which the group has one day to work on a small project that the villagers ask for help with. This unit project, as well as the longer 2-week research project at the end of the semester, made many of us feel more comfortable being in the communities. Plus, the projects allowed us to use everything we had learned in the unit and put it to an actual real life use!
  3. From the final part of this program, what I loved the most was that I learned so so much, but I was almost never stressed. We were often in class for most of the day, but we never had homework, so evenings were spent hanging out with friends and roommates around campus and in the city, and weekends could be used for traveling around the country. Furthermore, I definitely used my brain and thought critically, but because there were few traditional assessments (like individual tests), I almost never felt stressed. This program was an excellent balance between academic rigor and just enjoying life. For once, I was able to participate in school without even caring about my grade, as I cared more about completing projects that would be helpful for villagers.