Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Bechtold


Hannah Bechtold attended ISDSI for the 2012 spring semester in her junior year at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI). Hannah graduated from Calvin in 2013 with a degree in International Development Studies and a minor (almost 2nd major) in Biology/Environmental Studies. She currently works as a general administrator/volunteer coordinator for The Family Connection Foundation - a non-profit organization located in Chiang Mai Thailand. Her semester with ISDSI helped pave the way for her to move to Thailand.

What made this experience unique and special?

ISDSI is unlike any other study abroad program that I’ve heard of. It seems that most study abroad programs, you take classes all semester long at a local university. ISDSI is different in that it’s a stand-alone program and you have block classes. There are 4 courses and each course lasts about a month.

The other thing that makes ISDSI unique is after the first course “Foundations,” you spend a week in the classroom in Chiang Mai, then 2.5 - 3 weeks traveling in another part of the country. Each of these “Field” courses have you working on a farm, backpacking through villages, snorkeling on reefs and kayaking through mangroves. Instead of simply learning about people and environmental issues they face you live and experience it.

Do you feel you got a chance to see the city from a local's perspective?

As part of the first course (“Foundations”) you live with a Thai host family and participate in family life with them while you take Thai lessons and learn about Thai culture in the classroom. A number of the assignments have you interact with your host family or local university students to learn about their perspectives on different cultural practices or issues Thailand faces.

The other 3 courses take you into village life with more host families and village meetings where the only way to learn is to ask questions. You’d be hard pressed NOT to see a local’s perspective while being a part of ISDSI.

Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.

While it’s a maybe non-traditional way to learn, experiential learning has more of an impact on your life and I believe I learned more because our classes were experienced based.

You can read countless articles and know countless facts about ocean acidification, swidden agriculture, mangrove destruction, agroforestry or political ecology in Thailand, but it becomes more personal when you snorkel over bleached coral reefs or live alongside people whose livelihoods have been affected by cash crop farming or mangrove destruction.

America has set environmental standards that developing countries don’t hold to because they are developing. Because I am so interested in sustainable international development, there’s no way I could have learned about these issues as well as I did, if I stayed in a classroom in the states.

What was the best place you visited outside of your home-base city?

It is hard to pick a “best place” outside our home-base city of Chiang Mai because there are so many incredible places this semester takes you to … and most are “off-the-beaten-track,” which makes those places that much better.

In picking one though, I’d have to say Koh Rawi on the Adang Archipelago in southern Thailand. The Adang Archipelago is a national park and people are only allowed to stay on two of the multiple islands in the archipelago.

ISDSI has special permission from the government that lets them camp on Koh Rawi for about a week. We camped right on the beach and spent our days snorkeling on various reefs around the island, taking different biodiversity surveys. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in the world.