Monday, March 2, 2015

Spotlight: Geography Department Study Abroad Field Experience - Thailand and Cambodia

Led by Dr. Jay Lennartson and Dr. Corey Johnson, a group of 9 UNCG students journeyed to Thailand and Cambodia over the 2014 Winter Break.

Along with touring the two countries, the students met with the Governor of Bangkok to discuss issues the city was facing that related to topics the students were jointly investigating with students from Thammasat University.

Dr. Lennartson and Dr. Johnson shared the challenges and triumphs of planning their international adventure with the Global Engagement QEP. This is their story...

CJ: I’m Corey Johnson, I’m an associate professor of Geography at UNCG.

JL: I’m Jay Lennartson, I am a senior lecturer in the department of Geography. 

I’d been looking for another opportunity to take students abroad to interesting environments in Southeast Asia. I then approached Dr. Johnson and made him aware of what I had, a general sort of idea, and he had a colleague at Thammasat University. And so we made our plans and went over and met this gentleman, Desha, and he helped to plan our itinerary.

CJ: Neither of us were regional experts. In fact, neither of us I think had been to Southeast Asia prior to our scoping trip. And that was actually by design. Part of the message we wanted to convey to the students, for their own learning experience, was that through the methodologies and techniques and approaches that we learn in the classroom in Geography, you can go places and apply those.

JL: We had 9 students, a mix of undergraduates and graduates.

CJ: About half and half, actually. We were there for two weeks, we were on the ground for two weeks with students beginning basically… They were to depart the day after Christmas, the 26th, and then we all returned either the 10th or 11th of January. Bangkok was the base where the students flew into. And pretty much immediately after we arrived, we boarded a train and left for Cambodia, and then after that subsequently returned to Bangkok, and the rest of the trip was spent in the city.

JL: The service-learning piece really involved their interactions with the Thammasat University students. Which is really one of the more satisfying aspects of the whole trip, is to see the relationships and the bonds that developed between the students from Thammasat University. The faculty member, Desha, had maybe 5 or 6  undergraduates that worked with our students and went along on the field trips and worked with them on such things as the sex worker issue, the labor (we met a labor organizer), and…

CJ: …urban environments, political issues. So, basically, each day there was a trip into the city, at least part of it in Bangkok, where we met with local NGOs, we talked about the issues that they face, and the students were very much part of that.

JL: I think they just enjoyed hanging, the kids enjoy hanging out together and seeing the very different, very different cultures. Food kind of caught us. Our students, I was somewhat concerned…

CJ: They latched onto everything, from tarantulas and snakes, which at least one student tried, to some sort of doughnut that they could buy off the street that they found to be the best doughnut they’d ever had.

JL: That doughnut apparently was, yes.

CJ: I will say that I was most impressed by our students also along the lines of not knowing how they’d react to a very, very different environment. That they were open-minded, they went with the flow. We had zero problems, discipline issues, or issues of people not showing up on time, or people refusing to try a different way of transportation, different setting for how… Or different standards of cleanliness, which was something that sometimes I had issues with, but the students, they just went with the flow. It was incredible.

JL: They were quite adventurous, on their own. Their first, when we left them on their own for a little bit, they, one of them organized a little tuk-tuk expedition. So tuk-tuk is a motorcycle with a little cart on the back, essentially. It’s how you get around. So they went out and they rented some tuk-tuks and got taken around, they actually got taken a little bit.

CJ: You know, it’s the standard story of “we’re going to take you to show you some Buddha,” and then after they show you the Buddha, then they take you to a suit shop. I mean, of course that was the first day they were there, and that was in the journals and reflected as, it seems, one of the highlights.

JL: It didn’t faze them at all, they took it as a learning experience.

CJ: The key is, for the educational experience, is be open to living in the place, be open to seeing things that are not on the tourist itineraries. Our students learned far more, and horizons were far more broadened by the experiences in the evening walking around than by visiting the famous tourist attractions in this part of the world.

JL: It was a Friday evening, and we were trying to get back to let the kids go out and have some fun with the Thammasat students, but our host wanted us to go to a Burmese migrant village. It’s a place where they process fish. And it was just, kind of surreal. It was a surreal experience because you’re in a different community with all these different sights and sounds and smells. But we all said we would love to go back again and experience it. It was very special.

As we were going along in the trip, every morning we would get together with the students. Three of them, unsolicited, by the way, you know, would comment, “I wish this is how college was all the time.” They said, “I’ve learned more in the first two or three days that I’ve been there than I have in my whole 4 years at UNCG." They said, “This is what school should be about.”

For more information on Faculty-Led Study Abroad Programs, contact Marie Henry at or visit

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