From virtual to reality: My journey with HealthNet in Thailand

By Dallas Blackwell, USAC Chiang Mai Fall 2022 alumna from the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

When I first decided to pursue a virtual internship through the University Studies Abroad Consortium’s (USAC) Online Global Perspectives Program, I had no idea it would lead to an incredible in-person experience in Thailand a year later.

My journey began in the summer of 2021 when my plans to study abroad in Khon Kaen, Thailand, were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I still had my Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, I decided to apply for a virtual internship for the upcoming Fall 2021 semester through USAC and was matched with the Health Network Development Foundation (HealthNet).

As a public health major, I was excited to work with HealthNet. It’s a non-governmental organization based in Khon Kaen that collaborates with government agencies, private sector businesses, and other organizations to promote wellness. The foundation also implements health-related interventions for vulnerable communities in Thailand. Throughout my virtual internship, I worked closely with my USAC resident director and internship supervisor/HealthNet’s program manager to complete assigned tasks, such as hosting weekly English communication lessons for the HealthNet staff and student interns. I even conducted research projects regarding race and socioeconomic status in the U.S. and presented the findings to the foundation’s staff. My first project was to examine COVID-19 situations, including vaccination policies and healthcare practices. My second project examined healthcare accessibility. Also, to provide me with a virtual shadowing experience, HealthNet gave presentations of their visits to local communities for interventions.

The virtual internship was challenging given that I had to step out of my comfort zone, but I appreciated the flexibility it provided. I enjoyed learning about Thai culture, including the healthcare system and public health practices during the height of the pandemic. I also appreciated the patience and support of both HealthNet and my resident director as I gradually came out of my shell. They encouraged me not to stress and to have fun with my internship. My experience taught me how to communicate cross-culturally despite language barriers and to build cultural sensitivity. Most importantly, I became more self-aware. The internship pushed me to be reliant and confident in myself. I knew this would prepare me when I finally studied abroad in the future.

After the virtual internship, HealthNet extended an invitation to me for an in-person shadowing experience, which I was eager to accept. About a year later, USAC’s Khon Kaen program was still canceled, however, I was cleared to study abroad in Chiang Mai for the Fall 2022 semester. So, fast forwarding to October 2022, I took an hour flight to Khon Kaen to finally meet the HealthNet staff in person. It was such a joyful reunion. Because we only had four days together, the staff created an itinerary where I would be able to explore Khon Kaen and the whole works of HealthNet as a tourist, student, and public health intern.

On day 1, my placement supervisor, a staff member, and a current student intern gave me a tour of Khon Kaen University and the public health building. I also had the opportunity to visit a local high school where educators and nurses partnered with HealthNet to produce virtual sex education workshops. HealthNet gave them an award for their efforts to reduce pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI) transmission rates among teens. After the award ceremony, I was able to meet with an educator and nurse, and we discussed the prevalence of teen pregnancy in Thailand and the U.S., as well as current prevention programs in both countries.

On the second and third day, I got to shadow and briefly engage in two workshops. The first workshop was at a local child development center. HealthNet and the center collaborated to help teachers assess their students’ development stage — specifically, their motor, social, and language skills — and properly intervene if a student needs improvement in any of those areas. For the second workshop, we traveled to Mukdahan to attend a learning development center. Here, I observed how HealthNet staff, community doctors, and directors of the development center use models similar to what I have seen in my public health courses to build a community-based intervention for common developmental problems in preschool children.

On my fourth and final day in Khon Kaen, HealthNet wanted me to visit an orphanage right before I was dropped off at the airport. I was able to meet with the director and received a tour of the facility. The director not only shared the history of the orphanage, but also how it is currently promoting and protecting the health of the children — especially concerning their social and emotional well-being. After that opportunity, it was time for me to say goodbye and head back to Chiang Mai.

In just four days, the HealthNet staff gave me an authentic perspective of Thailand. They guided me into the reality of local life, which deepened my immersion in Thai culture. They taught me new vocabulary that I typically did not hear in Chiang Mai. They introduced me to foods like Nhon Mhai for breakfast and Ruam Mit for dessert. While in Mukdahan, they took me to the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge where I could see Laos right across from the Mekong River. We even took a quick trip to Wat Roi Phra Phutthabat Phu Manorom to pay homage to the Naga.

I am beyond grateful for the amazing hospitality of the HealthNet staff. They welcomed me with open arms and made me feel included. When you are a foreigner, there is nothing better than being welcomed in an inviting community that is so sincere and kind. HealthNet and their associates assured me I now had a place in Khon Kaen to call home.

From being a virtual intern to joining HealthNet in person, my journey has been filled with valuable experiences that have shaped me personally and professionally. I appreciate learning about HealthNet’s inspiring work and its impact on community development. My journey has taught me the importance of adaptability and perseverance within both settings.

If you are looking for similar internship opportunities, explore USAC internship programs that might interest you. Additionally, if you are eligible, I recommend applying to the Gilman Scholarship to support the experience that awaits you.