Editor’s Note: Eight students received a Judith Oliver Brown Memorial Award, designed to assist students planning to pursue culturally oriented Field Period® experiences. Two of those students travelled to Thailand and helped construct a bathroom and pave a road, relocated elephants, and taught English to school children, among other activities.
The students travelled with Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE), a Seattle-based volunteer organization that unites international volunteering with adventure travel to create a meaningful volunteer experience abroad.
The award honors Brown, a 1963 Keuka College graduate. Students apply for the award, and must write an essay outlining their Field Period® plans, how the funds will facilitate those plans, and how the experience will benefit them, the site, and the community.
For Martha Rinella ’19, visiting Thailand was a dream come true.
“As I continue my education, I have found great interest in travelling and experiencing cultures other than my own,” she says. “I believe that immersing myself into a new culture has a lifelong, lasting impact.”
Part of her immersion into Thai culture included assisting in several service projects, and understanding how Thai traditions and customs differ from her own.
“In order to learn about, and fully comprehend various ways of life, I believe that it is important to actively participate in the local traditions,” says Martha. “This included meditating with monks, building bamboo rafts, taking Thai cooking lessons, partaking in daily chores, and my personal favorite—relocating elephants. I also taught English to Thai students, constructed bridges for transportation, and built relationships with locals.”
And it was building those relationships that led Brittany Bruce ’20, to meet some “amazing” people, something she credits with giving her the experience of a lifetime.
“I loved working with the school children and engaging in activities with the locals,” she says. “They were so friendly and welcoming, and made me feel right at home. While in Thailand, I was involved in infrastructure projects, worked on construction of the road, and taught English at the local schools. I helped pack water bottles full of sand, mixed concrete, set cement posts, and dug trenches.”
The first service project, Martha says, involved building part of a bathroom.
“Not only will this give them a cleaner way to use the bathroom, but it also will decrease the amount on fecal matter in the freshwater for their village,” she says. “For our second and third service projects, we paved a road and taught English to the school children. This town is only accessible by one road, and during monsoon season, they lose all transportation in and out, as the road washes away. Paving the road with cement will allow full-year transportation and will increase their importation and exportation.”
Brittany adds that the group collected stones from the river to mix into the concrete and make the road more durable.
At the local schools, Brittany says, “we prepared a small lesson on food for the students. We made flashcards and came up with different games to help the students learn the English words. The local women taught us how to make certain crafts, like baskets out of bamboo and belts out of string. I also participated in Thai cooking lessons to learn about Thai cuisine and different cooking styles.”
For the final service project, the group was given the opportunity to relocate elephants.
“We got to work side by side with mahouts, or elephant whisperers,” says Martha. “With them, we were able to track elephants through the jungle and relocate them towards nearby rivers. When we brought the elephants to the rivers, we got to feed and bathe them while the mahouts would check their health.”
Cross-culture and diversity exploration is an opportunity that everyone should get to experience, says Brittany.
“I am grateful to have gone on this trip, and I returned home more appreciative,” she says. “An understanding of early childhood education in the Thai culture is one of the many things I learned on my adventure. I also now know how the environment affects physical, cognitive, and social development.”
Martha says that her Field Period® was “definitely one of the best experiences of my life. It is so hard for me to pick a favorite part—all of it was perfect. The Thai people we met have close to nothing, but no one would ever know based on their attitudes. They have spirituality, family, and community—and that is all that they need.”
“GIVE is an amazing program that offers tremendous adventures, and I hope to travel with GIVE in other trips around the world in the future,” she says. “I learned so much about myself, and my trip gave me a once-in-a-lifetime experience, allowed me to see another side of the world, and gave me a new perspective on life.”
Martha, too, came home with a new perspective.
“When I first went, I thought that I was going to teach, but I have never learned more in my entire life,” she says. “When we taught English to the school kids, we gave them opportunities that they would not have otherwise. When we built bridges, we made their daily travel shorter by miles, allowing them to make more of each day. Lastly, when we formed relationships with the Thai community, they are also gaining a greater understanding of our culture.”
Adds Martha: “The Keuka College community has always been one of encouragement in exploring diverse opportunities. I hope that by sharing my Thailand experience with other students, they will be inspired to step outside of the traditional Field Period® box and embrace a life-changing experience.”