Study-abroad semester in Thailand helps UAH student “go with the flow”

Scaling Bua Tong WaterfallTN

Jenna Tischler, a UAH student majoring in political science, is spending the fall semester as an exchange student in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In the past few months, Jenna Tischler has scaled the Bua Tong "Sticky" Waterfall, bonded with elephants at a rescue and rehabilitation center, taken part in a Buddhist ritual, and taught conversational English to Thai soldiers. It's not your average fall semester, by any means. But Tischler wasn't interested in your average fall semester, which is how she ended up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a semester abroad.

A Madison native, Tischler knew from the moment she enrolled at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) that she would be spending a semester in a far-off place. "I didn't have the opportunity to travel much growing up, but I wanted to experience other countries, cultures, and languages," she says. "I recognized that spending a few months abroad would be more worthwhile and affordable - both time- and money-wise - during college."

Originally she considered going to England, and then Spain, before eventually settling on New Zealand. But as her departure date grew closer, something about the destination didn't feel quite right. "I wanted a country and culture with a slower, more lax social climate and a language of which I knew none," she says. "So I began exploring places that aren't quite as popular to travel, and I decided on Thailand."

With guidance from Dr. David Johnson, Director of UAH's Office of Study Abroad, and the Education Abroad Network in Thailand, she enrolled in Chiang Mai University. "Dr. Johnson was excellent at helping me figure out what classes would count toward my major and what would count as electives," says Tischler, a political science major and art history minor.

Elephant Nature ParkTN

Tischler’s travels, which have taken her all over Southeast Asia, included a visit to an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center.

She opted for Thai Politics, Thai Spoken Language, Thai Reading and Writing, and Thai Art and Culture. Yet it was the education she received upon her arrival in Thailand that may have proved the most valuable. "One of the first things the orientation staff told my group was to spend the semester learning to 'go with the flow'," she says. That's because Thais, as Tischler soon learned, are accustomed to a "more lax" schedule.

"Unlike in the U.S., where schedules tend to be strict and running late is seen negatively, it's common here for classes to start late and people to wander into meetings after they start," she says. "So there tends to be a grace period in schedules - lovingly referred to as 'Thai time' by expats and exchange students."

At first, Tischler found the difference challenging. "I'm admittedly high strung!" she says. But over the course of the semester, she began to see the advantages. "It's all about balance," she says. "Thais are busy, but they aren't in a hurry." And eventually, she adopted 'Thai time' wholeheartedly. "It's been the greatest personal change I've had here," she says. "I've become a much more relaxed person."

Of course that doesn't mean the language and cultural barriers still don't prove frustrating on occasion. In fact, they're something Tischler says she "deals with constantly." But they haven't stopped her from making the most of the opportunities afforded by her host country, which she says "is a pretty fascinating place to be" for more reasons than she could have anticipated.

Buddhist ritual during host family stayTN

Tischler has welcomed the opportunity to immerse herself into Thai culture while studying abroad.

"Thailand is beautiful, the people are some of the most welcoming in the world, and the food is incredible," says Tischler, adding that it's also very safe. "Many people were concerned about safety when I told them I was studying in Thailand; however, I've never felt safer in my life! Thailand is an extremely safe country for foreigners to visit, especially northern Thailand."

Indeed, she frequently makes use of Chiang Mai's public transportation, known as songtaews. "Songtaews, or 'red trucks,' are kind of like a privately owned taxi service, except the taxi is really just a covered back of a pick-up truck," says Tischler, explaining that for the equivalent of 60 cents you can go almost anywhere in the city. "It's definitely something I will miss when I get back to the States!"

The country is also centrally located in Southeast Asia, making it easy to visit neighboring countries in the region. To date, Tischler has been to Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia, which she says has been "extremely beneficial" in increasing her awareness as an American. "It gives you a completely different perspective on western culture."

And ultimately, that is really what studying abroad is all about. "Not only does it provide students with the opportunity to experience different cultures and languages, but it also pulls you out of the collegiate 'bubble' that tends to form during the undergraduate years," she says. "So even if a student isn't sure of a destination or exactly what they want out of study abroad, they should just pick a place and go."

Though if you're asking Tischler for her opinion about what country she would suggest, you may already know the answer. "Thailand," she says. "I'd recommend it every day!"


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