As I sit at a dining table in the open air lobby of my hotel in Mae Sai I ponder how did I get here? I am a program director and instructor from the University of Maryland. I run our undergraduate Criminology and Criminal Justice program at a satellite campus and teach courses on criminological theory (the causes of crime), research methods, and human trafficking. I am a trained criminologist with a background in program evaluation.
I spent many years in school, have researched and evaluated many criminal justice prevention programs, and have taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision this moment, sitting at a hotel in Mae Sai. And yet, it feels as right as anything ever has. My colleague, Christine, and I are attempting to catch up on emails and grading while the 11 students we have brought with us complete their fourth day of teaching English at a state-run Thai school. We will travel as a group this afternoon to DEPDC/GMS to continue our volunteer work, painting a house, and playing with the amazing children we have met.
The planning that went into this trip was immense. After teaching a course on human trafficking for several semesters, I became frustrated with my inability to show the students what human trafficking really is. No lecture, book, article, or documentary can replace seeing the complex pushing and pulling factors that lead to this international issue. I casually met with the University of Maryland Education Abroad office in the summer of 2014. From that point, Christine and I worked to develop course content, itineraries, and logistical plans (and there were many!). We selected a wonderful provider, CIS Abroad, to assist with the design and implementation of the program and, a year and a half later, here we are. As we are approaching the end of our two-week plus journey I have a few reflections.
First, planning a trip like this for students has been challenging, frustrating at times, and yet one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have had. I see the students’ minds bubbling with information, questions and frustration as they digest the magnitude of the issue, and I see their empowerment as they join together in the important work of DEPDC/GMS.
Second, I am astonished at my own personal growth. While I have travelled abroad, and volunteered abroad, this experience is unlike any other. I know my most powerful way to prevent and reduce human trafficking is to educate and increase awareness through my students and community. The more I see, the more individuals in the field I talk to, and the more perspectives I understand, the better job I can do. I can combine cultural sensitivity with a keen critical eye to express the issues in a way that promotes understanding and action. I can’t take every student to Thailand but I can carry the emotion, passion, and commitment I have gained back to the University of Maryland and pass it on.
My final reflection is my unexpected affection for the Thai way of life. While I miss my family (especially my two young kids), my bed, and my routine, I have settled into life here. Returning to the hustle and bustle of home, especially the start of a new semester and the cold weather, may be a shock to the system. I feel calm and happy in Thailand. Perhaps it is just the needed reprieve from my normal busy schedule but perhaps it is more. The spirit of the people I have met, in spite of the challenges they face, the fights they must win, the struggle to build a better future for themselves and those around them, is contagious. Perhaps I will go home and choose to smile instead of getting mad. Perhaps I won’t but I hope I am reminded of that option every so often.
Thank you DEPDC/GMS for allowing us to learn from you, for allowing us to help you, and for showing us the compelling force that comes with a positive spirit and determination.