Mark Robson, professor of plant biology and pathology, has been working in Thailand for 20 years. His activities have included being a Fulbright Senior Scientist, teaching risk assessment under a program funded by the Asian Development Bank and training young environmental health scientists under the NIH-funded Fogarty Center. Because of his deep association with Thailand, Robson was motivated to develop a new International Service Learning Course (ISL), a month-long course in July that was offered for the first time in the summer of 2014 in Bangkok. The class included a service component in local schools for underprivileged children in Bangkok, along with cultural and educational activities. One day-long field trip involved a visit to rural farming location where Robson conducts research on the effects of pesticides on children living in the rice-growing area known as Rangsit.
Here Ecology major Alexandra Shishkova, who participated in the ISL course, shares her thoughts and experiences on Thailand, in her own words, below.
Summer 2014 – Bangkok, Thailand by Alexandra Shishkova
I wanted to be challenged, to learn and grow, and I have—most ironically by means of realizing that it is not all about me!
The Thai people call Bangkok “Krungthep,” the City of Angels. It is true! My first impression of Thailand’s capital was that it was nothing short of heaven on earth. Despite the construction projects and infamous traffic congestion, Thailand felt like a relaxing green paradise, with orchids and lotus flowers as far as the eye could see. My assignment, although I was asked not to give any specific details in order to protect the privacy of the students, was to volunteer at a government-sponsored school for mentally handicapped and autistic students in Bangkok; approximately 40% of the students were autistic and the majority had Down syndrome. The school was a cheery and free-spirited place, where I do not think the ultimate goal was to assist the students with life-saving care. Instead, I felt this was a population of young people who were growing up with very little exposure to anything outside of Thailand and who will most likely never leave on their own. So I brought the outside world to them!
Working with students who required help in communicating their thoughts and feelings presented unique challenges. Many of the students at my school were non-verbal but extremely intelligent. Sometimes I would say something (and in English) and the children would look as if they had no idea what was going on because they could not speak in meaningful ways, but they would take my hand and show me where I needed to go. That was incredible to see! This was the reason why I helped the children express themselves using alternative communication methods such as photography, art, dance, craft projects and the like. It was powerfully rewarding to see their talents shine. Coming into this from a background in evolutionary study, if there is one idea that has been crystallized in my mind from this experience, it is that I do not believe a genetic ideal can ever be achieved in one person. We all have our positives and our negatives, our talents and our weakness, and only through one another’s help does it balance out into a prosperous society.
International service learning has changed me. Looking back now that it is over, I went into this venture with what I have come to realize is a very typical mentality for young Westerners, i.e., I was most concerned with what this could do for me as far as making me a better person. I wanted to be challenged, to learn and grow, and I have—most ironically by means of realizing that it is not all about me!
Volunteering internationally has reinforced my understanding of the fact that there are people who struggle on a daily basis, people who are isolated from life in other parts of the world, and people who truly need help. I now identify with how important it is to take the extra minute in my day to be considerate of others, and that is called maturity. I have truly grown up from taking part in this project, and I am immensely thankful for my experience. Thailand is a vibrant and colorful place with probably the most resilient people I have ever met. I try to bring a little of the Thai colors and smiles into my life at home every day.