After traveling to Europe on spring break with my college’s honors program, I was eager to see and live on another continent for a longer period of time. As I looked at various summer study abroad programs, I was drawn to the classes and field trips in USAC’s Khon Kaen program and Thailand’s nickname of “the land of smiles.”
My Courses in Khon Kaen
Before traveling to Khon Kaen, I had considered law school as well as graduate school for public health. These interests led me to enroll in the Global Health class in Khon Kaen because of USAC’s description that the course would focus on the psychology of study health and how health connects to human rights. I was also interested in the History of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) course because I wanted to learn more about Southeast Asia. Once I arrived in Khon Kaen, I added Intro to Thai Language to learn conversational Thai such as how to order food at the street markets or ask for directions.
I loved my classes and exploring the Khon Kaen University campus. My Global Health Issues class was mostly discussion based and included presentations from students about certain health case studies or how the environment affects health. We looked at how health impacts the United Nations’ Millennium Development goals through case studies of different issues around the world and in Southeast Asia.
For my final project, I researched why people from the GMS—especially Laos—come to Thailand for healthcare because the country and its healthcare system is more developed. The class also opened my eyes because it was audited by eight students in KKU’s Masters of Public Health program who were from Indonesia, China, and Cambodia. This provided different viewpoints about health, lifestyle, and education. I became close with these students and still keep in touch through social media.
My history class taught me about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its focus on regional development, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and CLMV and GMS development projects. We mostly focused on the influence of ASEAN and its projects in the GMS countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. The class looked at overviews of these countries’ histories and the main challenges they have faced in the 20th and 21st centuries.
One of the main challenges we studied was using the Mekong River as a resource. Although the river provides fresh water that impacts all of the GMS countries, issues of regional cooperation complicate being able to use the river efficiently. To tie together what we learned in the class, we visited the Mekong Institute on KKU’s campus and learned about the institute’s works on human capacity building to help GMS countries take advantage of the Mekong and become more competitive on a global scale.
What most struck me during our five weeks of class was that many environmental issues facing Southeast Asia today are environmental issues that have challenged and continue to challenge my home state of West Virginia. Making these connections showed me that the world and different cultures are actually much more alike than we usually portray and led me to complete my final project on issues surrounding Laos’ push to be a supplier of hydroelectric power by building hydro dams along the Mekong River.
Exploring Thailand During My Study Abroad
Although I spent most of my time during the week in class, studying at the KKU library, or exploring the market behind the KKU hub, I traveled with USAC and individually on the weekends. I visited Bangkok with USAC before arriving in Khon Kaen and went on USAC’s Silk and Isan History tour where we saw several temples, explored Khmer ruins, and visited the Isan Ban Han village to have a home cooked meal at a villager’s home and see the process of silk making from the silk worms to the loom.
I went on the Phu Wiang Dinosaur tour where I learned more about Khon Kaen’s rich dinosaur history and saw dinosaur fossils in the Phu Wiang National Park and Dinosaur Museum and also attended the Varee Valley Weekend Field Trip to see local temples, the Ubolratana Dam, and the Nam Phong River. When not traveling with USAC, I traveled with friends I made in my program. We rode the train to Nong Khai, took a van around Maha Sarakham, and flew to Chiang Mai and Phuket.
My favorite experiences were the silk tour, and my trips to Chiang Mai and Phuket. The people I met on the silk tour were so welcoming and gracious and showed me the power of strong, hardworking women. During our Chiang Mai trip, my roommate and I went to an elephant sanctuary, visited the mountaintop temple of Doi Suthep, shopped for hours in the giant Chiang Mai street market, and spent a day exploring the mountain village of Mae Kampong. In Phuket, we explored the beaches and local shops and restaurants. Four of the girls in the program also came with me for an excursion to the Phi Phi Islands, which was one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. The water was a gorgeous blue, and we were also able to snorkel with fish and see an island where lots of monkeys live. I felt like I was in Disney’s Moana the whole time I rode the boat around the mountains in the middle of the ocean. Throughout my travels, I also loved exploring all the markets and seeing different Thai cuisine and homemade items.
Volunteering in Khon Kaen
In addition to my classes and travels, I enjoyed volunteering to do music and art therapy in the pediatric cancer ward at Srinagarind Hospital on the KKU campus. A group of students in my program worked with a local service organization for role playing, coloring, singing, and dancing with the patients. I will always remember the smiles of the patients as we colored and sang with them. It was humbling to see how joyous they were in the face of serious health fights. It inspired me and showed me that even if we do not speak the same language, it is still possible to connect with others and that smiles can sometimes be the best medicine.
I also loved meeting the students from around the United States who were in my program and getting to spend time with them. I became great friends with my roommate and Dhina, an Indonesian student in my health class. It was so much fun to explore Khon Kaen and Thailand with these people and become closer during our six-week journey.
I think of Thailand every day, and the knowledge I gained from my experience continues to connect to what I have learned in my English Literature major and Biology, History, and Political Science minors. This opportunity also reaffirmed my desire to attend law school and concentrate in international human rights, health, or environmental law because my classes showed me how much healthcare and the environment impact international development and conflict.
I would like to eventually have a job that allows me to work with immigrants and refugees or in genocide prevention. I would also love to connect these areas to my interests in science and healthcare. While my study abroad experience provided more direction for my future goals, it also gave me a greater appreciation for other cultures and an even deeper love for my state of West Virginia.
Maggie Lohman is a USAC Khon Kaen alumna. She attends West Virginia Wesleyan College and is majoring in English Literature, with minors in Biology, History, and Political Science.