The University of Iowa

Study Abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand

July 31st, 2009

Reprinted with permission from Payap University Web site

By Seahsia Vang

“Why do you want to study in Chiang Mai, Thailand? Why don’t you go to China, Japan or Europe?”

My name is Seashia Vang. I am a citizen of the United States. Ethnically I am Hmong, as are my parents, grandparents and our ancestors.

When I was younger my parents said I would never listen to them, ironically, my parents never realized how much of an impact they had on me. As an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Printmaking and Journalism/Anthropology, I had always known that I would study abroad. The only question was, where? If I had my pick, I would love to study on every landmass that contained some sort of culture, immersing myself in a world free from borders and passports – no visas needed. It’s a shame my personal finances and student loans could only support me for just a semester of study abroad – not to mention, I had a handful of required classes waiting for me in order graduate from university.

Both my parents had been victims, survivors or warriors – take your pick, of the war in Vietnam which had ultimately spelt over into Laos. My father became a child soldier at the age of 14 and was to fly jets at 17 for the CIA fueled ‘Secret War’- the war had ended before he could fly. My mother was an orphan, a regular civilian in the mountains. All she knew was that when the bombs got louder that meant to run. As the war intensified they fled from Laos leaving behind their gardens, the rivers and teary final goodbyes to the mountains, a home they would never return too. As refugees in the camps of Northern Thailand, both have endless stories of suffering, loss and discrimination. So when I told them of my interest in study abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand, they could not fathom why I would possibly want to study here – 40 years ago for my parents can be remembered in a split second.

As young parents they did not realize the late night stories about the war and their personal experiences being told to my siblings and I as a children, were in fact fueling a young humanitarian activist. As a child, I looked at my mother and father and saw the strongest people alive. They showed me that nothing can destroy the human spirit, even when you have lost everything your soul still pushes you to move forward.

Therefore, when I was searching for programs abroad, I knew that humanitarian advocacy and an academic curriculum was the most important factor for studying with a program. When I found the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership (IPSL) being offered in conjunction with the Thai and Southeast Asian Studies Program at Payap University I knew that this was the program for me. IPSL offered a non-conventional style of learning and cultural integration, as well as a combination of academics and volunteer servicing – this was the biggest influence for my decision. When I saw this I literally pushed away the rest of the study abroad brochures at my university study abroad office and concluded that I was to study in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the Spring 2009 semester.

While studying in Chiang Mai, I had the best social and existential time of my life. I was given more than what was offered in the brochure. For instance, the brochure did not mention seeing a whole shopping center freeze when the Thai Royal anthem plays, migrant workers protesting their rights and the irony of ethnic minorities selling their traditional-commercialized goods for better standards of living. This program at Payap provided me the chance to experience three, one-week home stays. The first was with a rural Northen Thai family, the second with an ethnic village consisting of Hmong, Mien and Lua people, and finally another ethnic stay with the Lisu people. This was my favorite part of the entire Thai and Southeast Asian Studies program.

With IPSL I was allowed to choose my preference of service placement. I was placed with a local NGO and worked along side staff who were nearly all Burmese or ethnic nationalities from Burma. What was great about serving there was that our regular academic course also provided helpful context on the situation in Burma. Before working with my NGO and studying at Payap, I had no idea how dire the Burmese situation was. I realized that the situation in Burma is similar to what my parents experienced – if not the same as a variety of humanitarian issues around the world. Through IPSL I believe that without students and academics, issues such as what is going on inside Burma will be ignored and untouched.

As core foundations for personal growth my parents had always articulated the importance of cultural awareness, self-determination and personal sacrifice for the betterment of others. Building upon what I learned in the Thai Studies/IPSL program at Payap University, in the future I would like to work with newly resettled migrants from Burma as well as organize more support for organizations abroad. I cannot wait to express my wonderful experience to my family, friends and surrounding community and hopefully influence others to follow a similar path.

- July 13, 2009

Seashia is a senior art and journalism major, and a first generation Hmong-American. Her parents were refugees of the Vietnam/Secret War and were resettled in the United States in the late 1970′s. She received a One World Foundation Fellowship in Summer 2008, allowing her to complete an internship in a Cambodian orphanage. She was motivated by her experiences in Cambodia to return to Southeast Asia for another service-learning project. She worked with the University of Iowa Office for Study Abroad to select the International Partnership for Service Learning & Leadership program in Thailand. Seashia was very fortunate to be awarded a Gilman Scholarship from the U.S. Scholarship from the Study Abroad office, which enabled her to have this experience this spring and summer.