Niecea Freeman studied abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2015. After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, Niecea was accepted into the Fulbright graduate fellowship program. Below, Niecea discusses how her experience in Chiang Mai helped her receive this coveted fellowship.
Why did you decide to study abroad in Chiang Mai?
I decided to apply for the program at Chiang Mai University because I had heard wonderful feedback from friends and family who traveled to Thailand about the environment and the unique city culture of Chiang Mai, which is so welcoming and friendly. I was also interested in the region because I wanted to familiarize myself more with Eastern philosophy and culture which isn’t highlighted in American education as much as Western ideologies.
How did your experience differ from your expectations?
I was pleasantly surprised by how involved USAC was in facilitating the study abroad experience. The program director, Jum, and all of her supporting staff, cared very much about my safety and well-being in Thailand and cultivated an engaging and meaningful experience in Chiang Mai and other provinces. They coordinated with a variety of organizations in the city for volunteer and internship opportunities that would have been difficult to orchestrate on my own.
What is one thing you would have done differently?
I wish that I had taken the Buddhist Philosophy class! I enjoyed all of my courses but I wish I wasn’t afraid to take on a little more responsibility when it came to the coursework, above 12 credits.
What surprised you the most about Chiang Mai?
Thailand definitely operates differently than the US! Food stands and restaurants can pop up anywhere and in any neighborhood; there is little regulation, but this freedom has given many entrepreneurs the ability to make unique, immersive coffee shops and restaurants without breaking their bank. So there are hundreds of cool cafes (all serving locally grown Doi Chang coffee) to visit and bring your laptop to or to socialize with friends and locals.
What was your favorite course during your time abroad and why?
My favorite course was the Thai Civilizations course taught by Ajarn Keatisak. We had many class reading and lectures but most of our time was spent at museums or visiting local temples and nearby cities to attach what we learned in our books to Thai history and culture outside of the classroom. The field studies for the Hill Tribes course were very interesting and engaging as well.
What was your favorite USAC field trip or personal travel?
My favorite USAC excursion was the trip to Sukhothai in central Thailand after learning the history of Thai civilization. Riding bikes around the National Park, visiting ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, and giving alms to the local monastery were all amazing experiences that I will never forget. But I would also recommend traveling to other countries in the region as well (such as Myanmar or Cambodia), to compare and contrast what you have learned about Thai culture to other unique identities in Southeast Asia.
What did you learn about yourself during your study abroad?
I learned the most about myself through the internship at the Northern School for the Blind, teaching English lessons to students from K-6 and creating audio recordings of textbooks and other multimodal materials to differentiate learning. I felt so competent and like I was a part of the community in a way that gave back and contributed to my host country. This experience ultimately helped me learn that I was capable of living and working in another country in a way that didn’t only benefit myself.
Why did you decide to apply for the Fulbright?
I have known that I wanted to apply for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) since the 10th grade after my Spanish teacher left our school for a Fulbright in Granada, Spain. She returned the following year burgeoning with enthusiasm and ideas for the classroom, the school, and our community–a small town of 800 people that has been struggling to provide adequate educational opportunities to its students for decades in rural California. She spoke passionately about the strong social responsibility that the community in Granada had for their schools and their children’s education. Her experiences with Fulbright ultimately inspired her to start a non-profit organization called the Sierra Schools Foundation for our own community, providing materials, resources, and experiences to students in rural schools who otherwise could not afford these opportunities themselves. Fulbright has made a strong impact on my local community and my own education. After seeing firsthand how beneficial the government exchange program can be for an individual and community, I too wanted to go forward and learn from the students and families abroad to embrace new ideas, pedagogies, and perspectives to enact positive change in myself and my community.
How do you feel your study abroad experience helped you receive the Fulbright?
My experience studying abroad in Chiang Mai was formative in helping me develop a sense of international citizenship and civic duty, which is at the heart of the Fulbright program mission, and provided me with relevant first-hand experiences that I was able to draw from to design my Fulbright community project, inspired by the work I had done previously in Thailand. From opportunities like volunteering to teach English at the monasteries, refurbishing play equipment at a local orphanage, and my internship with visually impaired students—the USAC program in Chiang Mai provided me a foundation of experience and understanding of living and traveling abroad, even for a brief amount of time, that helped prepare me for teaching English in the Fulbright program in the Czech Republic.
How did you determine your Fulbright location?
I chose to apply to the Czech Republic because I was inspired to explore how the nation is continuing to cultivate its own exclusive identity through language and culture in the world today after its most recent reformation in 1993 (going from Czechoslovakia to Czech Republic). I am fascinated by the influence of the different cultures and languages that surround the Czech Republic, situated in the heart of the European continent and therefore historically lying in the heart of hegemony and warfare. This history has created, in my opinion, a unique environment in which to teach English. Even though over 95% of the population speaks Czech, previous generations received their instruction at school in German or Russian after being dominated by the corresponding powers during and post World War II, and now, with English as a lingua franca in many parts of the world, many Czech nationals are now learning English. So the generations all speak a variety of lingua francas depending on which events they have lived through and I think that is fascinating.
Any extra advice/insights you have for potential study abroad students?
Take your classes seriously! This is a wonderful opportunity to network and make connections with professors from another university across the globe. I’m still in contact with professors and program advisors from Chiang Mai and many have written me letters of recommendation and corresponded with me about career opportunities in Thailand. Don’t just get wrapped up in the travel aspect; you are always representing yourself and your university.