Niraj Shah

Major: Business Administration

Hometown: Greensboro, NC

Study Abroad Program: Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Commerce and Accoutancy (Bangkok)

Thailand – The Land of Smiles

I still remember my orientation prior to starting freshman year at UNC. The advisors were all recommending that I study abroad during my time at UNC. I thought about it, but didn’t really give it much thought. I was one of those many students that thought “I won’t have time to study abroad with academic credit requirements” or “studying abroad is too expensive.” While those are valid concerns, I am thankful that I overcame those initial objections and ultimately decided to study abroad in Bangkok, Thailand at Chulalongkorn University. The experience changed my life forever, and I owe much gratitude to the Phillips Ambassadors program for making it possible for me to study in Asia. The program not only assisted me financially in offsetting the costs of studying in a foreign country, but provided me with excellent resources and support to ensure a great learning experience.

I arrived in Thailand in early January and was immediately overwhelmed with a new culture. Not many people spoke English. There weren’t signs for “lose weight now” everywhere. And there definitely wasn’t a Bojangles in sight. While such a scenario would shock many, I found it refreshing to be in an area where things were different from the “norm.” I quickly realized that I was no longer in America and would have to adapt to the Thai way of life during my four months there. And that’s exactly what I did.

It was my objective to really immerse myself in Thai culture during my time in Thailand. The Phillips Ambassadors program provided excellent preparation for this; prior to arriving in our exchange universities, the Phillips Ambassadors program held a required workshop to assist us in adjusting to a new culture. So when I was in Bangkok, I tried to make good use of this workshop. I tried to learn about how people interacted with one another. Unlike in America, people in Thailand are heavily collectivistic. A lot of decisions are made in groups and basic tasks are almost always done in a group setting. Also, unlike in America, there is a high power-distance in Thailand. This means that it is rude to call your professor or even someone older than you by their first name. I had to learn to start adding a “P” prior to saying my peers’ names and had to address all my professors as “Ajarn.” Then of course there were the intricacies of using the Thai “wai” type of greeting; I had to figure out the significance of holding my hands close to my head versus holding my hands closer to my chest. Needless to say, there was a lot to learn; but that‘s exactly what made the experience great!

I made some of the best friends of my life during my time in Thailand. The local Thai students took great care of me and showed me around Bangkok; I was able to visit “hidden gems” of Thailand that I would never have discovered as a tourist. Because of them, I was able to find the best place to get a “spiked up Thai haircut” and where to have the best 5-star quality meal in Bangkok for less than 5 dollars. In addition, I was able to immerse myself in the Thai language and can now hold a basic conversation in Thai! My eagerness to learn about Thai culture and the Thai language stems from the great support from Phillips Ambassadors program. The program emphasizes that students take a more rigorous approach to their exchange experience and instead of merely visiting tourist attractions; the students should make sure to learn about the culture and history of the society in which they live.

I was fortunate to travel all over Thailand, from the bustling city of Bangkok to the majestic views afforded by Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. I experience the Thai New Year (Songkran) and visited the world-famous Grand Palace temple! Not to mention, I was able to travel to the majestic Thai beaches including Maya Bay, from the film The Beach. I was also able to explore a large portion of Asia. I visited Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, India and even South Korea. Given Bangkok’s central location in Southeast Asia, taking a weekend escape to a different country was a feasible task and I was fortunate to have had a chance to visit as many countries as I did.

While travelling was fun and great, it was always refreshing to return to Bangkok. It had become my second home and I had made great friends from all over the world. Even though Bangkok was not perfect, and I lived through the Thai political crisis, it is still to this day one of my favorite cities in the world and I look forward to returning in the future. I am grateful to the Phillips Ambassadors program not only for allowing me to experience Asia, but also for giving me a new perspective of the world in which we live. As we live in a more globalized environment, the need to understand new cultures is higher now than ever before. There is a lot going on in the world. Reading the “World” section of the Wall Street Journal can give one a glimpse into what’s going on; but visiting a foreign country will do much greater in terms of allowing a person to truly understand how the world operates outside of “Home”. I look back and can easily say that my time in Asia was the greatest time of my life and has truly changed my life forever. I encourage everyone to study abroad; it is a great experience that goes far beyond anything you could ever learn in a classroom!