Walkabout 2: My Diverse Classroom in Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

My walkabout has landed me far from Chico State, at Payap University in northern Thailand. My third semester teaching has just started—I have a class in Thai-English translation, Peace and Aesthetics, and a graduate class in Peace Education. In this post I mainly write about the students in my Peace and Aesthetics class, which is part of Payap’s General Education program in its “International College” program.

Thailand’s Experiments in Diversity

International colleges are of increasing importance in many countries, including Thailand. Being “international” means basically you offer an English Curriculum in a country where English is not the national language. Thus at Payap Universty, there are 4500-5000 students in the Thai language curriculum, and just over 300 in an English language curriculum. It is as if Chico State as part of its new status as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” were to set up a Spanish language college for about 1000 students, and then recruit to fill the seats and faculty spots. Anyway, the English program is available to students who can meet the entrance requirement, which is typically a TOEFL score that indicates they are ready to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English. This is hardly a cross-section of Thai undergraduates,.

What is Payap really doing? Payap International College is creating a complete curriculum in what is for Thailand a foreign language, English. They do this because a new multi-culture society is emerging in Souheast Asia.  My Thai (and other) students will create a world for themselves in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Thai government is actually encouraging universities across the country to establish such English language programs like we have at Payap University, and granting them accredited status if they meet requirements for quality curriculum, faculty, etc.

So who does this International College  appeal to?

My Classroom
     A survey of the students in my “Peace and Aesthetics” class provides an indication. Peace and Aesthetics is a “General Education” class required for all students on both the Thai and English side of Payap. As a result, I have a good cross-section of students from the four “international” undergraduate majors Payap offers: English Communication, Business, Hotel Management, and Information Technology.

Of the 46 students answering the survey on the first day of class, nineteen were Thai, and the rest were from twelve other countries, with the most numerous being Korea, USA, and Myanmar, with four each. 39 were from Asia, and seven from elsewhere, including one from Brazil. As significant, there was a wide range of reported language skills, with the three Malaysians reporting the most diversity (English, Chinese dialects, Malay, etc.). In 46 respondents, I can classify only five or so as being the “classic” native speaker of English from English-speaking countries, like the US, Canada, UK, etc., though I suspect that some of the Malaysians may have English functionally as one of their “first languages.”

A big question is how do we shape this diverse lot of people into a coherent “Payap Identity” over the next four years? Over the last semesters I have gotten to know a few of them—I am impressed that they bring a range of difficulties to the classroom. To borrow some Chico State-style terms around the issue of diversity, many of them are second language learners, two-thirds are “international students,” a few of the Burmese might have questionable immigration status in Thailand, and a number of the Thai students are from either Thailand’s Christian minority and/or one of the many linguistic minority groups found in northern Thailand.

Here is some more of the ethnic diversity I have come aware of: Thai students from the Karen, Lahu, and other Thai minority groups. The majority of students are Buddhist, but there are a good number of Christians, Muslims, a Nepali Hindu, and some free thinkers. Students I have had in the last two semesters who have parents from Thailand, and each of the following countries: Germany, France, Singapore, Taiwan, US, and maybe a couple of others. One of my Korean students this semester grew up in Kazakhstan and lived in the US, and three or four of the Thai students report having grown up in the US, and attended high school there. Last semester I also had five students from Turkey, all pursuing degrees in English from Payap University’s “Thai sidem” who landed in my “international side” GE class. TLast week I had a conversation with two students that are friends: One from Japan, and the other from the highlands of Nepal whose first language is Tibetan.  Today I talked to a friendship who was one of those multi-lingual Malaysians, and a minority group in Myanmar.

A number of the Thai students have experience with high schools in an English-speaking country, but others have never left Thailand. How well the non-travellers have learned to speak English through Thai-medium schools is impressive. A number of the foreign students have parents who have lived in Thailand for some years as expatriates, but others showed up in Thailand yesterday a few months ago to go to school at Payap, including one from Russia For those students, who are 17-20 years old, the transition is of course tough. The Turkish students in particular tell me about how lonely the transition was. They Turkish students also have the odd situation of being from a country which has entered a period of sometimes violent turmoil since they left. The Turkish students worry about their home country as they watch the political situation there from so far away, sometimes wondering if they can go back or their passports will be pulled by the Turkish government. Students from the other countries undoubtedly experience similar difficulties.

Diversity Thai Style, and Diversity American Style: Comparing Payap and Chico

My diversity statistics from Payap’s International College are of course anecdotal and higgledy-piggledy, being mostly what I can generate myself from one particular class. This is because, to be honest, the Payap administration doesn’t much worry about diversity, rather they just muddle through with a program which is inherently diverse. Chico State of course is different. Chico State has offices dedicated to documenting diversity statistics, and in particular an office focused on ensuring that the campus can meet the bureaucratic goals necessary to sustain funding as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” which has 25% or more Hispanic/Latino students. They do this so they will receive extra money from the federal government to fund programs that serve these students.[1]

This creates a paradox in my mind.  On a certain level I envy Chico State’s intentional diversity, they muddle through paperwork to ensure federal funding is forthcoming, but create an intentional policy, and hire people to deal with the issues of diversity which indeed can be anticipated. Thus Chico State establishes programs and policies that assist Hispanic students as they adapt to the standard issue middle-class university culture Chico State creates and recreates. Programs to help students with roots in Mexico cope with the “foreignness” of going to Chico State are being established with the federal money,, which means special academic and student-life advising programs to help students adapt to Chico State’s pre-existing middle class English-speaking “American” culture.

What Chico is doing is all to the good, but in the context of what I am seeing in Thailand, I wonder, ifthat is the only way to go? The lack of intentional diversity at Payap means that students must, for better and worse, create their own “diverse” world in the context of the larger Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Preventable issues of depression are not avoided, as young people seek adapt to a foreign environment in what is a second language for most (I have heard rumors of suicide attempts). My Payap students are sometimes awkward and confused twenty year-olds today trying to find the “social rules” culture which are not written or bureaucratized like they are at Chico. But I also believe that in ten or twenty years from now, they will be recreating a vibrant multi-cultural world themselves. Unlike Chico State, they are not charged with the conservative task of assimilating to the pre-existing middle class world, but will create a new world of their own design.

My students at Payap University feel like outsiders, just like the Hispanic deal with the inevitable issues of “foreignness.” What I think is different is that there is no assumption that my students at Payap must adapt to the pre-existing Thai world. Rather, unbeknownst to them and the administration, they are creating a new multi-cultural/diverse world just by being who they are. And at Payap, through perhaps its inattention to detail, the are permitted to create organically a new culture that will be something new in the context of a new Thailand and Southeast Asia.

[1] The goal is not usually that difficult for most California universities to achieve, as about 39% of he state self-reports being Hispanic.