Digna Pena Mejia ‘13

Studying Abroad in Thailand

By Glendaly Pena ‘13

Photo: Digna Pena Mejia in Thailand

College is a time for learning – but not only about academics. It is also a time for learning about one’s own self. This is the reason Digna Pena Mejia, a senior Public Health major, decided to study abroad in Kohn Kaen, Thailand during the spring 2012 semester with the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program.

Khon Kaen is located in the northeast part of Thailand. Digna wanted to go somewhere to “try something completely different.” The CIEE program was public health-oriented, and met all of her personal and professional goals. The language barrier, which many might find intimidating, also appealed to Digna; she wanted to challenge herself and see how she could manage in a country where she didn’t speak the language.

Digna had plenty of help arranging her study abroad experience, including Laurel Foster-Moore in UMass Amherst’s International Programs Office (IPO). Lynn Koerbel, the former undergraduate program director, also helped Digna wade through the many different public health study abroad program options. Like many students, Digna was apprehensive about the financial costs of studying abroad, but the IPO helped her obtain supplemental aid. She was also awarded a Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship for studying abroad. In the end, Digna said, “It was cheaper to go abroad than to be at UMass Amherst for the semester.”

Putting to use her “community public health tools” – learned in the classrooms at UMass Amherst – proved memorable. She worked in poor villages and slums, and most notably in a landfill community. She got to know the community through surveys and interviews, and then tailored intervention tools toward their specific needs. Finally, she was able to design a public health intervention program, and then implement and evaluate it.

Photo: Digna Pena Mejia visits a landfill community in Thailand.

Even though her positive experiences outweighed the negative, Digna still faced difficulties and challenges. For one, she “stood out like a sore thumb.” It was hard for her to get used to the stares and the people who wanted to touch her hair. As a person of color, she felt out of place, particularly in a country that stressed the value of light skin. She was astonished by all the bleaching creams, soaps, and so on, that were available over the counter. After some time, she learned to adjust, and took on the challenge as a way of helping the Thai people learn more about Latin America.

Digna learned much more about life and public health. “There’s a lot out there that you don’t get to see at UMass, or here in the U.S.” She learned to be culturally sensitive, and as she became more proficient in speaking the Thai language, she learned how to make connections.

Digna has simple advice for other students who might be interested in studying abroad. “Don’t think about it! Just go!” She added, “The traveling aspect is nice. The beaches in Thailand are beautiful. But think about the underlying ideas – what can you do out there that you can’t do here? How many people can say they worked with a landfill community? You get to see a different side of things that you might not otherwise be exposed to. And being exposed to a third world country really opens your eyes.”

As a UMass Amherst student, Digna has felt well supported by the university. She cites Oscar Collins from the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Sucess as an influential mentor; he has helped her appreciate all the resources that are available to her on campus. And as someone who chose Public Health as a major because she loves helping people, Digna notes the importance of the faculty and staff in the Center for Health Promotion at University Health Services who have helped her in return.

After graduation, Digna plans to work in the community health field among underserved communities. She has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and hopes to study health inequality in Brazil among Afro-Brazilians.