Major: Public Health
Hometown: Pittsboro, NC
Study Abroad Program: UNC Semester in Southeast Asia
My semester in Southeast Asia was an adventure and a challenge that changed my life. A two page summary just does not do justice to all the things I saw, felt, and experienced. Initially I had always imagined that I would return to a South American country to study abroad and develop my Spanish speaking skills. However, it dawned on me early on in the application process that I just could not give up this opportunity to explore another part of the world. I have always been intrigued by Asia and I’m so thankful that I have had this opportunity to study abroad in Southeast Asia.
I spent my first 3 months in Southeast Asia studying at Mahidol, an international college in Thailand. My classes were interesting, but certainly not strenuous. As I reflect upon those 3 months, it was not the classes that I learned from, rather my experiences. The time I spent with my fellow Thai house mates was irreplaceable. They taught me how to eat noodle soup with a spoon and chopsticks, catch a bus into Bangkok, barter in a market, and count in Thai. They had so much patience with me even when I ignorantly disrespected their culture. They were open and willing to talk about politics, Buddhism, and even the king, which is a forbidden topic in Thailand. It was through these friendships that I learned so much and grew to really appreciate Thailand.
For the last portion of my semester in Southeast Asia the six students from UNC were fortunate enough to study the inequalities of health and the health care systems in Thailand and Malaysia with UNC professor, Trude Bennett. This was definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my semester abroad. We visited public and private hospitals and various NGOs in both Thailand and Malaysia. I was so inspired by the passionate activists, professors, doctors, and economists that shared their research and knowledge with us. As a public health major I absolutely loved being able to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of different health care systems, current global health concerns, and the strides they were taking to combat different inequalities within the health system. These few weeks of studying health care in Thailand and Malaysia really confirmed my desire to study public health.
Another major aspect of my semester abroad that changed my life was the privilege I had to travel throughout Southeast Asia. During breaks in the semester and at the end of my program I traveled to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. I really appreciated all of these countries and thought a lot about what defines them from one another and what brings them together as a region. The most memorable country I traveled to was definitely Myanmar. It felt like a time warp and that I had stepped back in time 50 years. In Yangon, the buildings were dilapidated and the cars gutted. Millions of people lived in blatant poverty. The people I met were so inspiring. One man said to me “Please never forget about my country, tell people what you have seen.” I could never forget this country and the joy and strength that many of these people possess despite their lives of oppression.
Like I said at the beginning, I feel as though I have hardly begun to convey what I learned and experienced on this trip. One thing that I still must mention that I had never thought about before traveling through Southeast Asia is the idea of choice. I have spent my life deliberating things such as what major I would enjoy most, what I want to do with my life, and even things as simple as what I want to eat for breakfast. Choice is something I have always taken for granted, but really it is a privilege that many people can’t even consider. Studying abroad in Southeast Asia changed who I am and how I perceive the world. I am so thankful to Ambassador Phillips that I was able to have these experiences.