GoAbroad Interview

Amy Kaspar - ISDSI Fellow

Amy Kaspar - ISDSI Fellow

Born and raised in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, Amy was most familiar with people who looked and acted like her. At the same time, she also experienced ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity throughout her time attending Chicago public schools. Her early educational experiences stirred her curiosity for cross-cultural work, though her undergraduate studies settled her only an hour’s drive away from home, leaving her with a desire to explore further. Amy, therefore, ended up studying abroad in Thailand for one semester, loved the experience and unknowingly grew a soft heart for Southeast Asia, which led her to return to Thailand after graduation. She has since then found a home in Thailand through her work with ISDSI.

How did your career lead you to working for ISDSI?

I was a student for a semester at ISDSI in Fall 2010. After graduating college I was eager to seek more experience abroad, so I pursued a few connections I’d made as a student in Thailand. I moved to Chiang Mai to intern with the Amnuay Sook Camp, a project of The Northern Thailand Foundation for Enablement, focusing on the development of skills and talents of underprivileged kids. I lived with a young family in their village, helping to build the camp’s meeting hall and volunteering as an English teacher at the local school. Soon after finishing the internship, I began a fellowship with ISDSI.

Volunteer with host family in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Family photo on the front porch in Mae Hong Son

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

A day of work on a field course typically begins with an early morning, breakfast with a host family, then meeting together with students to begin the day’s activities. Each day is different, but everything we do is intentionally created to give students hands-on experience with the intersection of people, culture, and their environment. A day’s activities include anything from hiking a community-managed watershed forest, sea kayaking island beaches to survey coral reef and mangrove ecology, or sitting with village experts to learn traditional blacksmithing and basket weaving.

Why do you think ISDSI is unique?

ISDSI programs are designed to show students that the best way to learn about issues of sustainable development is through the expertise of local community members. When students are on the field, the villagers are their professors.

ISDSI field staff in a rice field in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

ISDSI field staff strike a pose in an upland rice field, Mae Hong Son

Theories and concepts from textbooks become most meaningful and applicable when students experience them directly with those who understand the value of living sustainably.

What type of “out of the classroom” experiences does ISDSI offer international students?

ISDSI intentionally designs programs to be academically geared towards field learning. Students learn theory and concepts in the classroom, and then they see and experience real people dealing with real issues on the field. With this kind of setup for learning, students better understand the complications of real life situations and can more practically determine realistic action towards a more sustainable future.

What makes Thailand ideal for study abroad?

Thailand is a fascinating example of a country developing quickly and in some ways very differently from the West. Large numbers of young people in Thailand are moving to cities for education and jobs, and the traditional rural lifestyle is ageing. This is a similar story to Western countries, but in Thailand the rural roots are only one or two generations in the past. Thailand is a great place for comparative studies on changes in local society, environment, and international influences.

Agriculture volunteers in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Working with students on Ajaan Jeff’s permaculture farm, Chiang Mai

How does ISDSI support students throughout every step of their experience?

ISDSI staff serve a variety of roles to introduce students to their new learning environment, become comfortable supporting one another in the group, and actively engage with the culture and Thai people around them. Field instructors' main responsibility is facilitation of learning, bridging language and culture barriers between students and locals. Throughout the semester, students meet in small and large groups with field instructors to discuss cross-cultural adjustment, learning, and personal application of insight and ideas gathered during study abroad. 

What is your best piece of advice you have for students contemplating study abroad?

Choose to study abroad in either a place that sparks your interest already or in a place that you’ve never considered going to before. Go to a country that will push you to experience life outside of your comfort zone; you will learn a lot about your new host culture and a whole lot more about yourself.

What do you love most about your job?

I love to see students inspired and invigorated in their cross-cultural learning experiences. Because our program sets up reasonable expectations for students and local communities, and also explains purpose and intentions for studying together, learning happens. Our program runs in a similar way every semester, but the new excitement I see in students is a little bit magical every time.

Tourists with local children dressed for Palaung festival in Chiang Dao, Thailand

Dressed to celebrate a Palaung holiday festival, Chiang Dao

Is there anything exciting happening at ISDSI in 2016?

ISDSI is currently putting together a workshop for faculty. Visiting professors from the U.S. will have an opportunity to experience ISDSI’s program firsthand. For four days, faculty will learn about issues of sustainable development in Thailand through a variety of activities, including visiting an elephant camp and an organic agricultural community. ISDSI’s newest course for students is a four week summer program called “Elephants, Culture, and Ecology,” studying the historical and present-day cultural significance of elephants in Thailand.