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Summer Study and Transitions Abroad in Thailand

Gold Buddhas in Bangkok, Thailand
Gold Buddhas in Bangkok.

Sarah Hecht was the Treasurer of the Class of 2012 at Farmingdale High School, and I was her class advisor. We met when she was fourteen. Sarah is now in the senior year at her university. If you remember high school (or are there presently), you know that officers spend a lot of time with each other and their advisors planning, organizing, facilitating, and scheduling activities and events for their classmates and for the school. Such activities provide educational avenues for unique conversations outside of the traditional classroom. I came to learn about Sarah’s volunteer experience in Guatemala, her true concern for others, her interest in the world outside of her hometown, as well as her profound effect on others due to her positive and outgoing personality.

The exuberant, active teenager has grown into a mature leader. Now the high school student officer and swim captain is a Homecoming chair of her sorority, Vice President of Internal Programming for the Inter Greek Council, and a Masters candidate in Public Administration at her Long Island, New York university. Sarah’s parents instilled a love of learning, joy of travel, and desire to help others in all three of their children. Subsequently, Sarah "transitioned abroad" into a summer program in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There she developed even greater confidence in herself, increased her ever-growing love of adventure, and realized many of the benefits of educational travel and life abroad.

At Bangkok's Grand Palace
Sarah Hecht and travel friends at Bangkok's Grand Palace. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hecht.

Stacey Ebert: When and how did you know you were interested in studying abroad?

Sarah Hecht: I have two older brothers, and although they never studied abroad, they talked about it a lot. I’ve always loved new adventures and learning … so why not combine the two! My best friend studied abroad in the Czech Republic, and I lived through her adventure via social media. I was envious of all she was learning, becoming, and experiencing. Sadly, my program limits me from taking an entire semester abroad, but; I could do a summer program.

Stacey Ebert: What made you choose the program in Chiang Mai, Thailand for your studies?

Sarah Hecht: I like doing things far out of my comfort zone. I wanted to visit a country that had a completely different language, culture, and atmosphere. I wanted to feel culture shock. In my sophomore year of college I met a girl who studied abroad in Thailand. She told me about the elephants she cared for, the food she experienced, and the language she learned. Chiang Mai interested me the most because it had every aspect of a city, but on a smaller scale. I love the atmosphere a city provides, but I can get overwhelmed if I’m somewhere that is a little too large. Chiang Mai was more isolated then the other cities, and has a fun nightlife and small walk-able markets. I hoped it would give me everything I wanted to experience. It did.

Stacey Ebert: How would you describe the transition from American student at a U.S. university to studying abroad in Asia?

Sarah Hecht: I had to wear a uniform every day. It consisted of a long skirt, white button down, belt with the university logo on it, and a pin. Some of the students would show up some days missing part of their uniform, and you could tell it made the professors upset. The professors were some of the most intelligent people I have ever met, and most of them spoke exceptional English. They were extremely passionate about teaching, and didn’t stand for any excuses. Our professors had extremely high expectations of us, and none of us wanted to let them down. The university had a lot of similarities. There were student run organizations and businesses, extra help, printing stations and fun places to eat. For me, the biggest difference was the size. Long Island University at CW Post has about 4,000 undergrads, while Chiang Mai University has about 33,000. It was HUGE. I was very lucky we only had to take classes in one building, because I think I would have gotten lost a lot. The biggest transition was figuring out the professors, the campus, and where to get the best food. We only had a month, so by the time we all got used to it, it was time to leave. It was so different, but an experience I am so fortunate I had.

Stacey Ebert: What has been easier than you expected to get used to abroad? What has been more difficult?

Sarah Hecht: The easiest thing to get used to was the weather. I thought I was going to be melting every single day, but before I knew it I had adjusted. Learning the language and getting around was a lot easier than I expected. After the first week I knew how to get to the main spots in town, and how to say basic words. One of the easiest things was making friends. I was nervous that it was going to be difficult. By the third day it was as if we had known each other our entire lives. The most difficult thing was getting used to the food. I thought I was ready for Thai cuisine, but I was very wrong. I love Thai food, but I’ve been eating ‘Americanized’ Thai food for years. Actual food from Thailand is much different. There were a lot of unique looking meat and fish dishes, and my stomach took awhile to get used to it all. It took me two weeks to figure out what I could eat without getting sick. I decided to become more of a vegetarian for the time period I was there, but I made sure I still submerged myself into the food. There was western food too, but I wanted to try new things. It was very different, but after I figured out what worked and what didn’t for me, I loved everything I ate.

Stacey Ebert: What do you feel you gained by studying abroad in Thailand?

Sarah Hecht: I gained self-esteem and confidence. Going on this trip alone taught me a lot about my own capabilities. I learned how to love who I am, to take every new experience that comes my way, and I left feeling like I could do anything. I gained the ability to learn how to live in a new culture. I feel like I can go anywhere, be anyone, and succeed. I’m very thankful I had to ability to experience it and come back to America as a better version of myself.

Stacey Ebert: Now that have experienced longer-term travel and flying far away, where do you want to go to next? How does length of time and distance enter into your travel destination decisions?

Sarah Hecht: To be completely honest I am not sure where I want to go next. I’ve been to Guatemala, Israel, and Thailand now, so I think it would be wonderful to experience some parts of Europe. I would love to live abroad for an entire year. It would be cool to experience working in another country, and it would be amazing to have an entire year to explore some place completely different. Length of time and distance isn’t really a thought, because after an 18.5 hour plane ride and being somewhere for a month, I feel like I can do anything. It would be amazing to live somewhere for an extended period of time, but where and when is the question. My biggest goal right now is finishing my degree, and then maybe I can use it to help me find someplace to travel abroad. I have a lot of goals and wants, and I think traveling right now is more of a want. My main goal is to find a job that I love. If I am really lucky, maybe I can fit my desire to travel into my career … that would be the best ever.

Stacey Ebert: What advice would you offer to high-school students today in choosing a program abroad? Would you suggest university study, volunteer opportunities, or short-term study programs? Why?  

Sarah Hecht: I would suggest a long-term study program. I felt the month I had was too short! When you do a long-term study program you can fit in volunteer opportunities alongside studying. I met people who had been in Thailand for months, and they were able to travel, volunteer, and study. I think that is the best way to do it. It takes a while to get used to a new destination, but once you get used to it, you might not want to leave. If I were there longer, I would have gotten the opportunity to study as well as volunteer. I suggest that high school students volunteer abroad (if even for a short time). Volunteering at a young age teaches you something special. You appreciate so much about life after volunteering somewhere, regardless of destination.

Stacey Ebert: How do you feel you’ve grown as an individual through your travels while study abroad?

Sarah Hecht: I’ve learned how to appreciate other cultures, as well as how to appreciate my own. I learned how fortunate I am for what I have, and how much is out there to continue to learn. It was very eye opening, and I came back wanting to share what I experienced. This trip helped my self-confidence and courage. It really helped me grow and realize how beautiful life is. I learned that everything can get stressful, but the freak-outs aren’t necessary. Everything will work out, and I am now able to see how beautiful life is when I can take a step back and just enjoy it. I learned not to rush through what I’m doing, and to have patience and courage in all of life’s adventures.

Stacey Ebert: How much of your time was spent in a community of Americans as opposed to locals?

Sarah Hecht: I spent a lot of time with Americans. We did have meetings a few times during the trip where we got to sit down with Thai students who were our same age. We also had a Thai staff member. We spent a lot of time with the people on our trip, but we also went out and met other travelers and locals.

Stacey Ebert: What helped you in your transition abroad?

Sarah Hecht: The biggest help was the other people who were on the trip. Together we shared our concerns and excitement about being abroad. If it wasn’t for them I think it may have taken me a lot longer to adjust. Meeting new open-minded people like myself really helped in the transition.

Stacey Ebert: If you had to do it again, would you still choose to travel with short programs, or would you choose to study abroad in one location for a semester or year? Why?

Sarah Hecht: If I could do it again I would go to Thailand for an entire semester. The longer you stay, the more you can experience. I would have been able to volunteer to help with the elephants if I stayed longer. If I stayed longer I would have learned more of the language, and found more food that I enjoyed. By the time I was really used to it all, I had to leave.

Stacey Ebert: Is there anything you wish you knew about the "transition" before taking the plunge?

Sarah Hecht: No, not really. I am kind of glad I went in with only the necessary information, because I had no expectations. I think the most important thing is to go with an open mind. New surroundings are good for the soul. Keeping both your mind and heart open is the best way to have a smooth transition.

At the Floating Houses
Sarah Hecht at the Floating Houses. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hecht.

Stacey Ebert in Barcelona

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