Alumni Spotlight: Eliza Wendel


Eliza has enjoyed traveling since she was little, and has been lucky to have many amazing opportunities to explore various parts of the world. This past semester, she experienced the hospitality of the Thai people and embraced the differences in culture when she spent four months in and around Thailand.

Why did you choose this program?

When I was first researching Study Abroad, I knew I wanted to choose a country whose culture would push me out of my comfort zone. After deciding on Thailand, I looked at the different programs that my school, UMass Amherst, was associated with, and if they had any trips to Thailand, as well as if I could take classes for my major.

I found CISabroad, which has an association with UMass and Mahidol University, a school located just outside Bangkok. Not only did Mahidol have classes that would work as electives for my Hospitality and Tourism Management major, but it also is one of the best schools in Thailand.

The program itself was fairly cheap, especially compared to my home university and other Study Abroad programs. CISabroad also offered a few trips throughout the semester, which was included in the price of the program. All of these factors played a role in my decision to choose CISabroad Thailand.

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

CIS was the liaison between Mahidol University and my home university. They had a checklist of items that Mahidol required, and we would turn everything in on an online portal for CIS, who would then organize everything to send to Thailand.

We had to get our own visa, which required some documents from CIS. The visa was the hardest part of the pre-departure organization because some embassies do not issue multi-entry visas (if you want to leave Thailand and return in the same semester). Although a single-entry visa will work, it just requires more paperwork once you’re in Thailand. Other than that, it was fairly simple because all documents were located on the CIS portal.

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

My advice would be to embrace the differences. The lifestyle in Thailand is very different from what we’re used to in the US and western cultures in general. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the differences in language, food, lifestyle, and traditions, but recognizing these differences and understanding that it doesn’t mean that one culture is better than the other, can help you enjoy the experience so much more.

I would recommend taking a Thai Language and Culture class as one of your classes at Mahidol because it improves your ability to speak Thai and gives you a better understanding of Thai culture. For myself, learning basic Thai was a huge help because most Thai people know only a few words of English.

Learning their language not only helps you order food, give directions to a taxi driver, and bargain at the markets, but also facilitates a connection between the Thai people and yourself.

There were many times when my taxi driver or server would get so excited that I spoke Thai, and would treat me less like a tourist and more as a friend. In addition, take advantages of the different holidays and festivals they have, as they give you an opportunity to understand the culture even better.

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

Most people tried to schedule their classes for only three or four days out of the week. Personally, I had Fridays off. The rest of the week, I would only have two classes per day.

In Thailand, uniforms are required for school, but they are generally not too strict about it, except on exam days. I would usually eat breakfast at school, have my two classes, and then take a taxi or motorbike taxi home. I did not have too much homework throughout the semester as my classes were more final test and project-based.

Having the three-day weekend helped a lot with my travels as it gave me the opportunity to travel to different parts of Thailand and even surrounding countries. I would usually leave on a Thursday night and return Sunday night or early Monday morning before class. Most people used the weekends to travel, but we would also stay around Bangkok occasionally, as there was also lots to do in the city.

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

My biggest fear was probably not being able to see enough of Thailand and the surrounding area. I wanted to be able to immerse myself in the culture of Southeast Asia, and wasn’t sure if I would be able to if I wasn’t able to travel around.

The biggest thing that helped me was the understanding of the importance that Thai culture places on the ‘present’. While I was not able to visit every single place that was on my list, I embraced each moment I was given – even if I was just staying around Bangkok for the weekend.

Each day presented many moments to immerse myself in culture, and all I had to do was focus on each of those moments, rather than reverting to western culture’s idea of living in the future. The other way I was able to overcome this fear is accepting the idea that I wouldn’t be able to travel to every place, but picking the places I did travel to with intention. If I REALLY wanted to visit a certain place, then I would make it happen.

Transportation was also fairly easy and cheap, which made traveling there much easier than anticipated. In the end, it’s not just about the number of places you’re able to travel to, but what you can get out of each trip that you take.

Where would you recommend visiting?

There are SO many great places to visit in and around Thailand. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Pai, Thailand. It’s a little north of Chiang Mai, and you have to take a SUPER windy road to get there, but the little town area is amazing! It’s very laid back, and the walking street at night has so much good food and market items. Not to mention that if you get good at driving motorbikes, there are plenty of activities to drive to around the area.
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand. An area so great I had to go three times. It’s a city without being too much of a city. There are some great elephant sanctuaries in the area to go to for elephant encounters and cooking schools to learn how to cook some Thai classics. If you’re there in the spring, I would recommend going there for Songkran, the Thai New Year. It’s a huge water festival where people line the streets with buckets and water guns, and you can’t leave your hostel from 9 AM to 9 PM without getting completely drenched.
  • Krabi, Thailand. A town down south that has beautiful beaches and hiking nearby. Day long boat tours are fairly cheap, and they take you to different islands and beaches.
  • Khao Sok National Park, Thailand. Another place south of Bangkok that is also pretty laid back and not as touristy. There’s some awesome hiking, and you can arrange a day tour through CoCo Hostel that brings you on a boat tour and a jungle trek (where you even swim/walk through a cave!)
  • Vang Vieng, Laos. TONS of hiking and exploring caves. Really great if you rent a motorbike or ATV. Seriously. The views are incredible!
  • Bali, Indonesia. A bit of a farther trip, but if you plan for some extra time after the semester, I would recommend spending some time here. I stayed in Nusa Penida, but there are some other great places depending on what you’re looking to do – climbing volcanoes, snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, relaxing on the beach, etc.