When I decided to study abroad, I knew I wanted to volunteer but I never knew how much it would impact my semester in Thailand. By engaging with people I wouldn’t of otherwise met, volunteering allowed me to see a different side of the Chiang Mai community and develop connections with a different population of people.

My English Class of local Thai students

As a Human Services and Social Justice major, I have been learning about providing and managing service through my volunteering since my freshman year of college. While in Thailand, I wanted to gain my first experience providing international service and learn firsthand the challenges involved in providing services to  people you do not share a culture with.

One of the reasons I choose TEAN over other study abroad programs was the fact that volunteer opportunities were built in to the program. The TEAN staff was instrumental in finding me a placement and helping me set up a relationship with the site.

I choose to teach English because I felt it was the greatest contribution I could give to the Thai people. Without the knowledge of Thai, contributing greatly to any other service would have been very difficult. In Southeast Asia, English is invaluable because it is the official language of ASEAN. Being able to speak English opens many doors for a Thai person, and therefore everyone is eager to learn, practice, and perfect their English.

One of my students showing off her A+ work

After a week of classes at Chiang Mai University, my TEAN resident director had set me up to volunteer as an English Teacher at Wat Suandok School, a local government school for students up to grade 6. Twice a week I taught English to a room of 50 fifth graders for two hours. I won’t lie, it was challenging.

The language barrier proved to be harder than I had anticipated and the class had a way of getting very unruly when I was teaching. But quickly, I developed strategies to quiet the class down and capture their attention. By the time the school year was over, I had watched my students grow in their comfort and proficiency in speaking English. From volunteering, you can establish relationships with local students and teachers and get a more in-depth look at the Thai school system.

With the help of my professor, I also landed a teaching position at the Burma Study Center (BSC). While at BSC, I saw another entirely different side of Chiang Mai by teaching Burmese refugees, a majority of which had left their homes to gain an education and make money in Thailand.

My Beginner Class at Burma Study Center

In addition to my twice-weekly nighttime beginners class, I also wrote articles for the BSC newsletter and photographed for them as well. Writing for BSC allowed me to interview some of my students about their migration stories and get to know them on a deeper level.

My students typically worked all day and then came to study English at night. Their dedication and desire to learn helped inspire me to be the best teacher I could be for them. Their stories of struggle stay with me until this day, and provide an extra push when I am feeling stressed or upset.

Exposing myself to different sides of Thai culture helped me form a more complete picture of Chiang Mai. But beyond opening my eyes to the different sides of my host city, volunteering allowed me to give back to the community I had fallen in love with. Try volunteering while abroad, even for just one day, and I guarantee you will feel more immersed into your host culture.

Carolyn Wallace is a TEAN Alum and Global Ambassador at George Washington University. She studied abroad with TEAN in Chiang Mai, Thailand.