“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page” – Saint Augustine
This time two years ago, I made one of my favorite decisions of my college experience: to study abroad. For five months during the fall of 2018, I lived and studied in Southeast Asia, specifically Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, I studied at Chiang Mai University, a mid-size public research university with around 32,000 students, while being immersed in the vibrant culture of the city.
Back when I was deciding where to study abroad, I had narrowed my choices down to Ghana, New Zealand, and Thailand. While I think that I would have had an incredible experience going to any country, I went with Thailand largely due to my interest in Buddhist culture and the connections that I had with a handful of people there (I also can’t say that the food and landscapes weren’t factored into my decision to spend time there).
Something that can be said about most of life is that an experience is what you make of it, and spending time abroad is no exception. While I find that it is important to have high expectations for certain things, sometimes having few or no expectations can make for a more positive experience. Going into my studies abroad, I had surprisingly few expectations for how it would turn out. Fortunately, finding my way in adapting to the culture, learning the language, and making friends went more smoothly than I could have imagined, and I credit this largely to the fact that I had a more “go with the flow” mindset than I usually do in other pursuits.
Of the other 82 American students in my USAC Chiang Mai program, at least half struggled noticeably with adjusting to the culture. Constantly making comparisons to one’s “home culture” and pointing out what “doesn’t make sense” can be important as a learning exercise, but it can also detract from one’s ability to accept, understand, and respect the cultural norms by which you are surrounded while abroad.
Back home at UMass Amherst, I am a part of the International Scholars Program (ISP). This small, tightly-knit community of internationally-minded students has undoubtedly shaped my mindset in studying abroad and has continued to influence the opportunities that I seek to gain further international experience. Before leaving the U.S., ISP helped me prepare by learning more about my host culture, and upon returning home, the program has provided me with friendships and support in reflecting on my time abroad while incorporating these experiences into my academic and professional pathways moving forward.
During my five months abroad, sustainability was one of the primary lenses through which I approached my academic work. My classes on the ethnic minority communities of northern Thailand, sustainable agricultural systems, and Thai society and culture provided me with the background of the country and an understanding of its current policies. Outside of the classroom, I learned from members of these minority cultures how agricultural programs such as The Royal Project have affected their livelihood – and how their experience parallels that of minorities of other parts of the world throughout history.
I learned about and saw firsthand the rapid urbanization that is characteristic of the region of Southeast Asia, including the massive sprawl and smog of Bangkok and the acres upon acres of rice and corn fields billowing black smoke after being set ablaze to clear the land for its next planting. At the same time, I fell in love with Bangkok’s public transportation systems, including the “boat taxis” that chug along the canals that snake through the city.
The ten days that I spent in Hong Kong revealed the political and humanitarian complexities of a population that is constrained by the islands that make up most of its geography, including housing and food access. While stringent land use policies contribute to the suffocating costs of living, being able to take a train or bus to remote, largely-undeveloped hiking areas and beaches is something that I had not experienced before.
At Vietnam’s infamous Hạ Long Bay and Cát Bà Island, I both experienced and contributed to the rampant tourism that is quickly destroying this striking UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2016, there were over five hundred different tour companies operating in the area to meet the demand posed by the nearly three million tourists and visitors to the area. Only with regulation and management can this type of overuse be addressed, much like is being found necessary in the U.S. National Park System.
These challenges and controversies provide insight to the ever-growing challenges that we as humans face in a world where traveling thousands of miles away has become increasingly more streamlined. As with any sector, tourism must be done in ways that are socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable—and with intentions to promote understanding, cultural appreciation, and compassion.
While I would not say that I came back as the “new” and “different” person that many said I would become, I don’t think that this is necessarily the point of studying abroad. Instead, my perspectives have shifted and grown, and my eyes have been opened to the learning experiences, adventures, beauty, friendships, complex histories, and challenges that the rest of the world has to offer.
If you’d like to read some of the stories from my time abroad, check out my blog, phoebegelbard.com.