My primary reason to study abroad was to push my creativity beyond the traditional scope of academia. Research papers, essays, and ‘ivory tower’ discussions had started to jade me. I strongly believe my experience with CIEE satisfied a longing to apply my creativity in the real world.
In October of the program I bought an old DSLR at a used camera store in Khon Kaen. With it I discovered the creative process within photography of translating emotion to picture and video. On our final community visit, I woke up at 3:00am to video a powerful 200+ person protest march led by NGO and community leaders. This video was eventually published in a regional newspaper as part of an article on the march, which our program collectively wrote. There is much opportunity through this program to not only explore your creativity, but to also passionately apply it. Community visits are a five-day investigation of our unit’s theme, in which you will interview NGO leaders, community members, local administrative bodies, human rights lawyers, academics etc. The interviews allowed my group and I to dissect challenges of development in Isaan from a broad and multifaceted narrative. At the end of each unit, the group would create a unit project, and individuals could take on journalism pieces, in attempt to cover an individual’s story or the broader issue. Each asset of the community visit, the interviews, unit projects and journalism projects, allowed me to push my academic and social creativity.
This program is also set up to be entirely immersive. You will be privileged with a, perhaps, once in a lifetime opportunity to build relations with people in rural Thailand. ‘Immersion’ is your choice, however. I encourage those who do this program, or honestly any study abroad program, to make strong effort to learn the host country’s language. Granted, Thai, and especially slang Isaan, is not an easy language to swallow. However, any effort to grapple Thai’s esoteric sounds and tones will highly reward you during community visits; I believe it will define the level to which the program is immersive for you, as connection begins with communication. I studied Thai at my home university the year prior to this program. I also spent the summer teaching English in rural southern Thailand. So, my Thai was at a basic conversational level when the program began. Thai is only offered at 8 Universities in the US, so you will likely not have the opportunity to study it academically beforehand. I highly encourage anyone considering this program to take on an individual effort to study Thai before arrival, and to continuously develop your Thai while there. When it comes down to it, you won’t want to miss the conversation and laughs that bounce around while sharing kao neow (sticky rice) with your host families.
The program will affect participants in many ways upon returning. For me, I added an Asian Studies major to my degree, and have since worked to become fluent in Thai. I graduated a month ago and now plan to return to Thailand, to begin work in the NGO field. Not everyone will add a new major and desire to work in Thailand after graduating. There were however a number of participants in my group who came into the program with interest in pursuing a career in international development. For all of us with prior interest in the field, this program helped answer many of our curiosities. I believe we all left with a very good sense of how community development work functions at a grassroots level. Overall, the DG program will introduce you to what I believe are the most important aspects of development work— 1) seeking creative, new and balanced solutions, 2) dialogue, and 3) listening.