Thai-U.S. Student Program Teaches Lessons, Touches Lives


Date: 11-20-2006

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HONOLULU (Nov. 20) -- Earlier this year 48 high school students, 24 American and a like number of Thai, were tapped after a rigorous selection process to be part of a unique program. Recently (Nov. 15) 30 of them gathered in Honolulu to share what they learned: How to conceive and implement plans to promote youth leadership in disaster planning, preparedness and education in their home communities. They also shared another lesson learned: a better understanding of themselves.

The Honolulu forum was the culmination of the current Partnership for Youth (P4Y) project, part of the East-West Center’s Islamic Initiative, and developed in conjunction with the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) with support provided by the U.S. Department of State.

In July, the young Americans spent three weeks in Thailand’s southern Andaman region, hard-hit by the disastrous December 2004 tsunami. There they lived and studied with their Thai counterparts, many of them Muslims, learning how the deadly tsunami affected the local communities. In late October, 24 Thai students traveled to Honolulu for a three-week stay learning from U.S. and Hawaiian experiences with disasters and acquiring tangible skills in disaster preparedness, and experiencing Hawaii’s own unique blend of American culture, school, and family life.

Surasak Kumput from Phang-Nga, Thailand, said “American and Thai cultures are very different.” But he did note a lot of similarities. “American and Thai people like to laugh, sing, dance, sleep, and eat.” Another apparent universal, for young men anyway, is the appreciation of beauty. Surasak smilingly added, “We were lucky because Miss Hawaii was part of our host family!”

On the serious side of things, the Thai students were impressed with what they saw. Seventeen year-old Orawan Rueang-on pointed out their time spent at Civil Defense headquarters at Diamond Head and training they received from the Community Emergency Response Team were “very good experiences … we learned first aid and how to plan ahead so that we will know what to do when a disaster strikes.” Krirkbodin Sinsap agrees. “We learned leadership skills and acquired much valuable knowledge that we can take home with us.”

Another impression many of the Thai students will be taking home is that of the American form of government and its citizens’ participation in it.

“We knew some things about the U.S. government,” Chonthicha Surajaroenjai says, “but we learned a lot more from out host families and our visits to our host schools.” The Thai contingent sent a few days at two Honolulu high schools, Kaiser and Moanalua. The timing of their visit was good in terms of civic lessons — they were here during the Nov. 7 elections. “I was surprised by the number of people who did not vote,” Ilyas Biding points out. “In Thailand citizens are required to vote.”

But, it was not only the visiting Thai students who learned a lot. Six of the original 24 U.S. students who traveled to Thailand earlier in the year as part of the P4Y project were in Honolulu with their Thai counterparts.

Thomas Soares of Scarsdale High School in New York was impressed with the enthusiasm of the Thai students, not only during his three weeks in Thailand but during their stay in Hawaii. “The wanted to know who we are, what we do, how we live,” he notes, “and it was clear they had a sincere desire to learn.” Soares touched on a theme heard often among the students from both countries. “Regardless of the differences and perceptions it was clear we all share many of the same concerns.” Something Jessica Au of Honolulu’s Kaiser High School echoes. “Teenagers are basically teenagers no matter what country they live in.” Cassandra Morigaki from Waiakea High School on the island of Hawaii concurs and says, “We found no one was judgmental. Our similarities and shared experiences have led to a real sense of friendship.”

But there were some concerns and experiences the teenagers from the two countries did not share … violence and terrorism.

The level of violence in the mostly Muslim south of Thailand has escalated in recent years and has become a daily fact of life to many of the Thai students. Scarsdale High School’s Huma Shah says she “did not fully comprehend how real the situation is” for many of her Thai counterparts. “The main emotion expressed to me while I was talking to these students when I was in Thailand was that of fear. Whenever the talk turned to terrorism, apprehension and fear replaced their usual smiles.” Shah adds that the Thai students would ask her “We are just kids and if the government couldn’t do anything to stop the violence, how can we?”

Shah admits, “I found it difficult at first to answer the question.” But, the Scarsdale student says “I came to the realization that while we are all youth, we will be the ones implementing and demanding change as we get older … and can obtain the knowledge to make that change.”

She adds, “I never realized the magnitude and harsh reality of the fear these students have. But, being able to talk to them (the Thai students) about the less favorable parts of their daily lives: the fear, apprehension, and inability to stand up for what they believe in, was the most enlightening part of my experience with the P4Y program.”

And, it is reactions such as Shah’s that make the P4Y program worthwhile, according to the director of the East-West Center’s AsiaPacificEd program and P4Y leader Namji Steinemann. “This program is as much about learning leadership skills and instilling confidence in the individual student as it is learning hands-on disaster preparedness. Leadership and confidence are primary factors in preparing for and dealing with adversity.”

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For further information, please contact: Namji Steinemann, Director
AsiaPacificEd Program for Schools, and Associate Director, Education Program, East-West Center

Email: SteinemN@EastWestCenter.org
Phone: 808-944-7596
Fax: 808-944-7070

For daily news on the Pacific Islands, see www.pireport.org. For links to all East-West Center media programs, fellowships and services, see www.eastwestcenter.org/journalists

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