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International Sustainable Development Studies Institute

About

Study abroad at International Sustainable Development Studies Institute (ISDSI), and immerse yourself in the vibrant cultures of Thailand and the surrounding region. Our programs are designed to get you out of the traditional classroom and into the field on expeditions, while learning about sustainability and the relationship between different people groups and the environment they live in. With a strong focus on hands-on learning, studying at ISDSI is a cultural experience that is the adventure of a life-time. You may sea-kayak the Andaman, visit a UNESCO World Heritage site, backpack between villages or research the sustainability of urban communities. Courses are developed in collaboration with local leaders, and upon arrival to ISDSI you will journey into the excitement of engaging with the local community, living in home-stays and experiential learning.

Website
www.isdsi.org
Founded
1999
Headquarters

United States

Reviews

Koki
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

We practiced describing our semester to our friends and family before heading home from Thailand, but I still feel that I never have enough time to explain the richness of existence I felt during the ISDSI semester. As an Environmental Science major and Education minor, I feel that my biggest takeaway is that my learning in college is now more contextualized and meaningful. Close relationships with local instructors and field instructors personalized our learning about ecological, political, and social systems. I find myself remembering conversations, feelings, and personalities of Thai friends and host families as I navigate my classes. ISDSI challenged me just the right amount to grow interpersonally and intellectually. I'll never forget learning about handicrafts in Mae Hong Son, eating moo ping and som tam, and making lifelong friends from Thailand and the US.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Put your pride aside and learn Thai quickly! Don't be afraid to reach out and make conversation.
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Maya
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

I never know where to start when describing my experience with ISDSI, other than that it was incredible. There are plenty of accounts already about the amazing and life-changing way ISDSI approaches education, so I won't try to repeat what has already been said. Instead, I'm going to list a few things that I think make ISDSI unique:

1. Learning directly from farmers who are experiencing the challenges of sustainable development everyday gives a whole new perspective on the issue. ISDSI has an incredible relationship with all of the communities they work with. This is one thing I think really distinguishes the program.

2. ISDSI classes are challenging in a way I've never experienced before. Experiential learning sometimes feels more like play than work (I mean, you get to backpack through Thailand!), but you learn so much and it is constantly forcing you outside your comfort zone.

3. The students that were in the program with me were from all majors - environmental studies, biology, economics, and sociology just to name a few - and it was amazing how this diversity allowed us to look at sustainable development through different lenses.

4. The ISDSI faculty and staff are almost entirely Thai natives - they really put sustainability into practice.

5. Yes, you will learn to have full (if simple) conversations in Thai. I didn't think it would be possible to learn how to converse in an entirely new language in 4 months, but halfway through our group led an entire interview in Thai without a translator. I also had a full conversation with one of my host dads about Karen culture.

6. I'm still in touch with my Chiang Mai host family. Kee-tung!

7. The "this could be your classroom" promos are not exaggerating. I kept thinking those words to myself all semester.

If you like the outdoors and adventure and are looking for an immersion program that will challenge you - this is the best you can get.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Be flexible! Have fun and challenge yourself. Use your Thai as much as possible.
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Casey
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

The four months I spent in Thailand were the best four months of my college experience. I was not sure when I would ever have the chance to go over to Southeast Asia so I was extremely excited about this program. We traveled all around Thailand learning about sustainable development from local people. We studied forests, agriculture, oceans and the city of Chiang Mai. The best part of this program was how integrated you are with the Thai culture. You live with a host family which is nerve-wracking because of the language barrier, but at the end of the semester, everyone in the program was competent in the Thai language. But this only happened by our integration into the community. Thai culture is beautiful and lively and not to mention the food is incredible. I was not ready to leave Thailand at the end of the semester. I still talk to my host family and it has been over a year since I was last in Thailand. This program is unlike any other programs because of the experiential learning. I highly recommend this program to everyone, no matter your major!

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Caleigh
9/10
Yes, I recommend this program

ISDSI was the most incredible experience, and really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. The semester was like nothing I have experienced before, and I value it above most things in college for the eye-opening opportunities it provided me. The home stays were incredible, the food is amazing, and the connections I made there will continue throughout the rest of my life. It's an intense semester, so be prepared to have your brain 'turned on' for four months straight without much of a break. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, and the only thing ISDSI could have done better would be to have better mental health support/communication, or support in general for students who might be struggling, for whatever reasons. Overall, though, I LOVED and miss my semester with ISDSI very much.

What would you improve about this program?
Better mental health support, having an on-staff or on-call counsellor of some sort, giving structured and built-in days off more frequently.
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Freda
9/10
Yes, I recommend this program

This was an amazing experience that I will never forget and encourage everyone considering to apply for. The language and culture immersion was amazing, the host families and field instructors were awesome, and the locations and courses were better than I could have hoped for. Overall this was an amazing program and I am really happy I didn't choose any other program. I think every college student should have an immersive learning experience like the one that ISDSI offers. Initially I was concerned that my Thai language skills would feel useless. But that is what allowed me to learn the most from local instructors and from my host families, and even though I don't use it now I think it's what contributed most to my education with ISDSI. Be aware that a lot of the villages and home stays will be with Christian Thais, not Buddhist or animist ones like you may expect. Many of the organizations ISDSI works with and the majority of the staff are Christian as well. This is not mentioned on the website but it's good to know before you go. The internship experience was not great but the program was excellent.

What would you improve about this program?
Better support and communication from executive director. Better communication and faster action on internships.
Response from

It's great to know you had an amazing experience during your time studying abroad at ISDSI!

Some students are surprised to find out that Thailand is culturally and religiously diverse, and not just Buddhist. During one course we do stay in villages for a few nights where many of the families are Christian, and some students do find that surprising. But that is part of the history and identity of that ethnic minority group, so we feel it is appropriate to learn from those communities. In the same way, we have extended stays in many Buddhist communities and a Muslim community so students learn from and experience villages and ways of life that reflect the ethnic and religious diversity of Thailand.

A couple of the projects we work with were started by development workers who are Christians, but again, the focus is on the quality of the project and not the religion, except when the focus is on religion. For that we focus on Buddhism, animism and Islam - talking with a Buddhist monk, meeting a Muslim Imam, studying animism and forests, etc.

Similarly, ISDSI employs individuals based on their knowledge of local culture, ecology and expedition skills, and does not discriminate based on personal belief systems. While some staff are Christian, the majority are Buddhist or non-religious.

In terms of doing an internship with ISDSI, we have now changed our policy since there was a lot of confusion this semester. Students will need to write up a formal proposal before they come to Thailand, rather than trying to figure out what they want to do once they arrive, and they will have a chance to set up their own internships and independent studies.

Thank you again for your feedback, and we hope you always remember all the great things you experienced in the Land of Smiles.

Programs

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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

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.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Did YOU study abroad?! If so, where and what inspired you to go?

Yes! I was a student in Thailand at ISDSI for a semester of undergraduate studies. One of my top priorities while in college was to study abroad. I was an anthropology major, and I knew the things I was learning in the US could be challenged and expanded in a cross-cultural setting.

Before I went on study abroad, I didn’t know much about Thailand except that I liked Thai food. I chose ISDSI more because of its program and less because of its location. I was lured in by the program’s unique emphasis on experiential learning and cultural immersion, and I’ve since fallen in love with the country.

What about the future of the industry? How do you think study abroad and international education will change over the next 10 years?

Study abroad is increasingly becoming more of an option to a wider crowd of university students, and in the next 10 years I think international education will have grown tremendously as an industry. The variety of programs and locations continues to grow, and the subjects students can study and observe will only continue to grow.

I think international education for university and high school students has the potential to initiate and build peace between countries with historically tense relationships. This could become especially true if study abroad programs emphasize the value of students living with host families, a remarkable opportunity to learn about everyday life and make meaningful connections with local people.

What language have you always wanted to learn and why​?

Through middle and high school I studied foreign language, but it wasn’t until I studied abroad that speaking a foreign language became something to love. When learning new words each day in class meant further possibilities to relate to host family members, vendors in the market, and people on the street, I was hooked.

I have been curious to learn more Thai as well as other languages since. There is a significant presence of Chinese people in Chiangmai and around the world, and I would love to learn Chinese. Now that I’ve acquired an ear for one tonal language, I’d love to take on the challenge of another one.

What changes would you make to the study abroad industry?

I would love to see the study abroad industry as a whole become more centered on community-based learning experiences. A lot of students go abroad and have an overseas experience on a university campus with a group of similar-minded similar-aged university students.

I think it’s important that students are pushed by their programs to know and appreciate the local people. Just as the tourism industry has the potential to exploit local communities for big business profit, international education can also make the mistake of capitalizing on local cultures and aesthetics without compensating local people for shared space and resources.

I’d like to see education programs put more work into building long-term relationships with local people for the benefit of not only foreign students’ learning but local people’s livelihoods.

More Interviews