The time that human rights majors Jessica Mitchell and Kris Parsons spent teaching English in a town in northern Thailand earlier this year will count on their transcripts as field experience.
The two Webster students agree that their relationship with the children who attend school in Omkoi, Thailand, has had a profound influence on their lives: Not just field experience, it has been a life-changing experience as well.
Kris and Jess taught English to children in grades seven through 12, residents of remote mountain villages who are living in a Baha’i hostel operated by the Santitham Education and Development Foundation while they attend school. They also taught English at the local primary school to students in grades four through six.
Although the pair were ostensibly English instructors, Jess says she did not consider that their main role. “Our main job was to work with people of different cultures, and this culture just happened to have certain human rights issues.”
These issues have arisen because of students’ membership in Thailand’s hill tribes, ethnic minorities who are often denied Thai citizenship as well as education, health care, and other services.
Kris says the children at the hostel were at first too shy to talk to her and Jess. By the end of their stay, however, she said they were staying up late to speak English and Thai with their American tutors. (The students’ first language is that of their hill tribe.)
“We talked not only about differences in comparing food and things like this,” Jess says, “but we would use this idea of the children expressing themselves in English to the best of their ability as grounds for exploring their discontent with the issues in front of them.”
One troubling issue that Jess and Kris broached was that teachers often did not come to class—educating the hill tribes is not a priority for those of the main Thai culture. The kids were reluctant to discuss this problem because teachers are revered in their society.
“We did not ask them to break their societal values, but rather to explain in English because we did not understand,” Jess says. “It was an opportunity to create a checkup on one’s own society. When something is difficult to explain to someone of another culture because it doesn’t seem to make logical sense, it may well be illogical.”
“The importance of learning to express themselves and express their opinions is immeasurable,” Kris adds. “Why? Because they are a marginalized, disadvantaged minority, no one is going to fight for their rights and their well-being but them.”
Confidence and open-mindedness were necessities during their stay in northern Thailand, Kris says. “We also had to be observant of our own culture. This is where I think the long-term psychological benefits come in.”
The Webster students found themselves reflecting on the many nuances of English that native speakers normally don’t have to think about. “For example,” says Kris, “when do you use the word ‘some’ and when do you use the word ‘any’? I dare you to try and figure that one out!”
Kris says that she and Jess both crave new experiences, a quality that served them well during their stay in Omkoi. Their adventure started with a 12-hour bus ride from Webster’s Cha’am campus to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. Jayabalan Krishnan, executive director of the Santitham Education and Development Foundation, then drove them to Omkoi, a three-hour trip. Krishnan also is the administrator of the Santitham Tribal Development Project in Omkoi, which includes the town’s Baha’i training center and hostel.
Krishnan is a friend of Ratish Thakur, academic director of Webster’s Thai campus. Their relationship paved the way for the field-experience opportunity in Omkoi.
Krishnan praised Kris and Jess’s enthusiasm and the innovative approach they took to teaching, which included songs, games, and dance. “During the farewell gathering everyone present said wonderful things about their selfless, dedicated, and selfless service,” he says.
Thakur says discussions with David Carl Wilson and Sarita Cargas, dean and associate dean, respectively, of the College of Arts & Sciences, reaffirmed the need to give human rights students meaningful field experience. He adds that Thailand, which has hundreds of grassroots NGOs and which is safe and accessible to foreigners, is “an ideal match for Webster’s students.”
Thakur says there is often a “disconnect” between global human rights organizations and grassroots NGOs. “This does not sit well with Webster University’s policy of ‘knowledge grounded in reality,’” he says.
With the help of Krishnan and his Santhitham Educational Development Foundation, Thakur says Webster has begun what promises to be a fruitful relationship. “I am truly excited at what lies ahead,” he says.
Associate Dean Cargas, an adjunct professor in the human rights program, advised Jess and Kris during their field experience in Omkoi. She says the students’ enthusiasm for their project has been gratifying.
“Our goal for field experience is for students to put their human rights experience into a real-life context,” Cargas says. “We want to avoid human rights tourism and make an impact.
“That the field experience made an impact seems obvious. Lives were changed by this field experience—the lives of the Omkoi students as well as those of Kris and Jess.”