There are hundreds of college and university students from overseas in Thailand at any one time. Some are here for a semester or more and others are here for two weeks or less. What they have in common is an opportunity to expand their horizons and begin to gain a global perspective or at least a cross-cultural one. Those who design and coordinate these programs usually facilitate a partnership between institutions in Thailand with institutions overseas. The ways these are conducted are too diverse to describe, but in general, the programs focus on (1) language, (2) culture and history, (3) and/or service-learning.
Advocates say that the service-learning model has the greatest potential for transformation of participants. Skeptics insist that it depends wholly on how much the participants are open to transformation and attitudinal modification. Students who come to party tend only to have aged a little by the time they depart. At the other end of the scale are those who “never get over” having been immersed in Thai culture. They are never the same again.
Immersion does seem to be the aspect that matters. The more students (or tourists) insulate themselves in their comfort zones, the less they absorb that is challenging. Without challenge there is no change.
A great deal of the Thai tourism industry is geared toward a form of mobile entertainment. Travelers are moved from one show to the next. They see a series of animal acts featuring snakes in one place, elephants, tigers, crocodiles or monkeys in the next. Then there are costumed dancers in the evening and static wonders to admire the next morning in the form of temples or palaces. If it goes well it is all very comfortable. Even “adventure tourism” is never meant to be all that challenging except inside a narrow range of previous interest and fitness, and then the goal is thrills rather than edification. It is essentially irrelevant that the track or trek is in Thailand, just as a Formula One race could be in Dubai as well as Monte Carlo. All this, of course, is frequently interspersed with shopping. Well, that’s what tourism is. It is only coincidentally educational.
Nowadays, there is also “augmented tourism”, tours-plus. Sometimes a tour is tacked onto the end of a conference or meeting. Sometimes the tour is the main thing, but an afternoon of helping-out is tucked into the program. You can usually tell the difference between tourism and service by who pays the bills. It strains the definition to call bathing and feeding an elephant “service”, especially if you have paid a thousand baht or more for the opportunity and you have to be helped by someone who could do it faster without you.
What turns an immersion experience into an educational one is reflection. Some sort of reflection is essential. Guided reflection is more productive than chain of consciousness recall. Disciplined reflection is optimal. An amateur sees, but doesn’t know what she sees. A trained observer sees more and configures it more accurately.
There is passive as well as active immersion. When I took a TV production class we got to observe in control rooms. We were immersed in the high-energy environment but required to be absolutely still. Students for the first time at a Buddhist ceremony should try to be passive but alert. In an authentic active immersion experience there is no difference between the way students are living and conducting affairs and the way people all around them are doing it. Reflection follows the immersion, but to derive the most benefit, experiences should be preceded by training and preparation.
Effective service-learning in Thailand is active immersion that provides assistance to somebody. In service-learning, students become colleagues in a project with those who benefit from it. A work project in which students do something for others may not be service-learning if elements of immersion or joint-participation are missing.
Effective service-learning is comprised of:
· An element of travel or movement out of one’s home environment
· A period of training and orientation
· Immersion into the environment of those to be served
· Work that benefits those being served
· Co-participation with mutual involvement by those being served
· Reflection, de-briefing and accumulating records
If any of these elements are missing the service-learning is compromised.
There are ways in which service-learning by overseas students in Thailand differs from service-learning back home. Some of the ways are matters of degree. A service-learning program in Iowa, for example, might place students in a public housing community center only a few blocks from campus or in a migrant farm worker labor union hall a few miles away, but travel to Thailand is into a far country with a comprehensively different culture. There are two ways, however, in which service-learning is fundamentally different in Thailand. Although it may be expected in New York, it is unrealistic to demand that students have a determinative role in selecting, designing and conducting their service. Not long ago a group came to our village to conduct a day of English language activities at our high school. Some of the activities were chosen for the group to conduct and part were activities participants insisted on designing themselves. Being unfamiliar with the school and educational culture of village Thailand the activities brought from overseas tended to be less successful because supplies ran out, the activity was too complicated to be accomplished in the available time, or the school students interacted mostly with each other while the service-learning students cheered or coached from the sidelines, or the service-learning leaders performed with the school kids as an audience. Student involvement in planning service-learning programs across cultural divides needs to be a collaborative effort, and if that is impossible it needs to be done for the service-learning students.
A second expectation of service-learning that is unrealistic here in Thailand is that somehow it will result in community or social change, particularly through giving community members a voice. There are insurmountable language, social, cultural and political barriers to that. Empowerment (as well as religious evangelism) is an unrealistic and illegitimate goal for foreign service-learning programs. Success can only be simulated and reports of success are inevitably exaggerated or entirely bogus. On the other hand, providing technical and emotional support for Thai change agents can be done by persons from overseas.
As service-learning earns greater and greater respect as an educational methodology and as the ASEAN accords open the door to greater mobility it is important to sharpen our thinking about service-learning by overseas students in Thailand.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.