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My name is Chris Roberts and I've recently complete my first student exchange at Thammasat University, Thailand. I study a Bachelor of Arts at Flinders University and Major in Asian Studies. So Thailand was an ideal destination that fit my chosen field.
This experience has been one of the best experiences of my life and I've really got to admit that there is no better way to 'do' University, than to go on exchange. After all, I see University first and foremost as an opportunity for self-development. This opportunity particularly encouraged me to learn and grow as a person. It was the combination of acclimatizing to a new culture, stepping out into a new environment and studying with people from all around the globe that really enhanced my whole educational experience.
I studied six subjects in Thailand. My favourite subject had to be 'Peace Studies.' The leading Professor was well connected to some major political figures in Thailand, including the Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was great to learn from him and he was very passionate about working towards peaceful solutions to conflicts. I learnt to look deeper into the structural and cultural causes of violence, which I had never really contemplated previously.
Studying the culture, history and politics of Thailand really framed my perspective regarding the political tensions in the country. During the Semester, a controversial Amnesty Bill was passed in the Lower House which led to mass political protestations in the streets of Bangkok. It also led to the resignation of the entire opposition party, which seemed a very drastic measure. Due to the protests, our final exams were replaced by 'take home' exams and assignments, because it was thought our safety was at stake. I've never experienced anything quite like it, and although the political tensions were quite mild in Thailand compared to other countries, such as those in the Middle East of Africa, it was still quite concerning that something violent or restrictive might happen in Thailand.
I tried to follow the news on the political demonstrations safely and from a distance and spoke to many of my Thai friends about the situation. It was surprising, for me, that so many of them supported the protests. My own belief was that the protest leaders had gone too far when they rejected electoral selection through consensus; something I believe to be a basic tenant of democracy. Democracy seems to be the best way to safeguard against violence, repression and exploitation and my own strategy for improving the situation would be to try and remove money from politics as much as possible, something to be said of all democracies around the world.
Being confronted by lots of people from other cultures negates some interesting moments of self-reflection. I came to understand my own biases and cultural nuances better and my new found friends sometimes challenged my world view whilst teaching and talking from their own perspectives. My personal experience studying with Thais, Japanese, French, Chinese and Americans has been quite surprising. I got a good sense of the work ethic and studying habits of my peers and the motivations behind their pursuit of education. Such cultural intuition is difficult to explain and it really requires direct experience to truly understand.
Bangkok, itself, is quite a modern city. There are plenty of things to do and see and thankfully most students live close to one another, so it was easy to organize get-togethers. Bangkok is also central to South East Asia, which made travelling on long weekends a really good option. It's well known that Thai food is exquisite, so as a food lover, I was in heaven. Street food can be quite a treat and trying new things was really special.
Partaking somewhat in the Bangkok lifestyle provides an interesting take on Asia. The city displays visible signs of its ancient past, yet modernity, western culture and transnational capital have really shaped its new image. This is evident through its architecture, politics, popular religion and many other facets. Many of my university projects really got me thinking about how the past effects the present, and how humans have had to deal with so much change over the last century and a half. Asian countries were mostly forced to change through colonization and Thailand, although not formally colonized has still had to acclimatize to western dominance and modernity. It is interesting to see how Asian counties assert themselves now culturally and politically in the twenty-first century. There is now much more money, technology and quality education circulating throughout Asia which will surely expose the underlying values which hold these communities together.
As part of my university studies I have also been learning Thai language. At the beginning I was so confused. I felt I could never get my head around the tonal system and I felt like giving up. However, with a bit of effort and help from some Thai friends I now feel like I have mastered the basics. I now know most of the writing symbols and am looking forward to when I can read more fluently. They don't use spaces to differentiate between words, so the next challenge is to get used to reading and becoming familiar with the sentences.
One of my best friends I met in Thailand is an American Student. Her major is in linguistics. We had some really fruitful conversations about how language influences our thinking and how we can learn so much more from a culture by understanding their language. I never knew how complex and different languages can be, from grammar, to tones, to aspirations, accents and colloquial expressions.
It has not been a big part of the Australian school curriculum to learn another language, but it is something I believe is a great learning tool and important for the cultural age we live in. With cheaper and more efficient communication and international transport the world is now much more interconnected. In order to remain modern, culturally aware and connected to society I think it is important to know at least one other language. In Japan, it is compulsory for all students in all disciplines to study abroad for one year to complete their Bachelor's Degree. Europe and Asia are blessed by having countries in close proximity to each other and Europeans usually know the languages of their surrounding countries. Australia is geographically isolated from the rest of the world and I want us to be involved in the global community. My interpretation of history leads me to believe that the most vibrant and advanced cities and countries have been those which have been able to easily trade ideas, goods and skills with other cities and countries. I want Australia to remain and develop a vibrant and abundant culture and I think an international focus in our schooling and university systems is necessary.
It has been a sheer honor to study abroad in Thailand. Thammasat seems to be a worthy university for Flinders to be connected with. It has a reputation of being a top university in Thialand for Political Science and those who wish to have a career in the government usually prefer to study there. I would be happy to be involved with this university in future and will be much obliged to advocate for student exchanges because it has been a highly valuable experience for me.