Travelers wanted: no experience necessary

For an example of the unique power of international education, consider the case of six students learning about human trafficking by meeting with activists in Thailand and Cambodia.

The clumps of black cables and electrical wires strung across Bangkok’s telephone poles form a dense canopy of urban vines 
that wend every which way — through trees, across storefronts, and into buildings. In May, a pair of professors and a half-dozen students walked under them along a busy road looking for their first lunch in Thailand.

The group had landed in the country about 12 hours earlier, in the wee dark hours, and everyone was hungry. The professors — political scientist Monti Datta and education professor Bob Spires — both knew Bangkok well. The six students did not. None had been in Thailand before. Only one of them, an Indonesian national, had ever traveled to Southeast Asia. One student had never even been off the East Coast.

As the group walked in the tropical heat, Datta’s plan for lunch was falling through. A restaurant he had discovered while teaching at Thammasat University in Bangkok for a semester didn’t seem to be around anymore. After a few false starts, he and Spires stepped away from the group for a moment to figure out Plan B.

When they returned, Datta gestured up and down the street, told the students that restaurants are all around them, and let them know they were on their own. “We’ll meet you back here in an hour,” he said. Then he and Spires walked away, ascending an escalator into a small shopping center.

What-do-we-do-now looks flashed across the students’ faces. Charlotte Bednarski, ’20, a Detroit-area native and one of the group’s most seasoned travelers, broke the tension.

“I say we go in,” she said.

“OK, we’ll do that,” Eljoy Tanos, ’20, the student from Indonesia, agreed. “But let’s wait so it doesn’t look like we’re following.”

Datta and Spires sat inside a restaurant and watched as the pack passed by. Datta looked at his colleague.

“A growth moment,” he said.

The professors’ hope was for many such moments. Over three weeks, these professors would lead students through Bangkok’s congestion and luxury shopping malls, to a laid-back city in the northern hills, and across the Cambodian border, all to examine issues related to human trafficking, Buddhism, and education. But the professors also hoped for another kind of growth — to help push forward a university program they were helping pilot with this trip. Called Encompass, it is designed to make study-abroad opportunities more accessible to the students who are the least likely to take advantage of them.

It’s a point of institutional pride that two-thirds of Richmond’s traditional undergraduates study abroad, but that still leaves one-third of them who do not. Students fall into this other third for various reasons. For some, the barrier is financial, but data show that students who major in STEM fields study abroad less, as do student-athletes, students of color, male students, and first-generation students. An undercurrent of fear of the unknown sometimes plays a role, too, said Martha Merritt, dean of international education, especially for students whose parents have not travelled abroad.

“Encompass is the first time in my career I’ve had the opportunity to reach out to people” who wouldn’t naturally self-select, she said.

The effort to reach Encompass’s target populations begins with the trips’ structure — short-term, faculty-led, and with itineraries that combine academics and cultural immersion. Funding provided by Carole Weinstein, W’75, G’77, and H’04, a decades-long supporter of international education, removed economic barriers for the pilot year.

“Engaging directly with the financial piece at least cracks the door open,” Merritt said. “When you make it ridiculously easy, as Encompass tries to do, even a student who has that resistance at a certain point feels, ‘How can I not do this?’”

Right photograph: Chance Evans, '20
It certainly did not seem real until I put my feet on the ground in Thailand.

During the spring and summer, pilot Encompass trips took faculty and students to Chile, Cuba, India, South Africa, and Southeast Asia. Political scientist Jennifer Pribble, who brought eight students to Santiago, Chile’s capital, said that it is impossible to replicate the learning experiences that happen abroad in a campus classroom.

“I’ve had great classes, but you have an hour and 15 minutes, and then they close their books and they exit,” she said. The Chile experience was “exhausting, in a good way” because it was immersive. Students were “always in it, always talking.”

Pribble is a Chile veteran. She worked in Santiago as a reporter and did her doctoral work on Latin American politics. Her connections allowed her to introduce her students to key institutions and people. Merritt said that identifying faculty with deep place-specific experience was key for launching Encompass successfully. She wanted experts who could, she said, “take students behind the scenes in ways that help them understand immediately, ‘Oh, this is not what tourists do.’”

Faculty bought in quickly. Merritt cited the case of biology professor Dan Pierce, who travels regularly to northern India to teach science to Buddhist monks. When he mentioned to his dean that maybe he could take students along with him, the dean sent him Merritt’s way.

“Literally, on the eve of launching Encompass, this biology professor I’ve never met walks in with the perfect opportunity,” Merritt said. “I said, ‘Have I got the program for you.’”

Merritt used that same formula with the students selected to go on the Southeast Asia trip with Datta and Spires; five of them had studied human trafficking in Datta’s classes. Her pitch to them was essentially this: Go to Southeast Asia so you can see for yourself what human trafficking looks like and meet some of the people who are fighting it.
Having a group of six gave her the luxury of choosing students with a range of study-abroad experiences.

Bednarski, Tanos, and a third student had studied abroad previously. For two others, this would be their first trip outside the United States. While the final student — Kelly Ortiz, C’19, a 40-something SPCS student completing her undergraduate degree in education — had vacationed in Bermuda and Mexico and taken a religiously motivated trip to Israel, she had never had a study-abroad experience, either.

Merritt wanted this mix because she didn’t “really want this to boil down to the inexperienced students and the experienced faculty members,” she said. The veteran student travelers could continue to build on past experiences, and their presence would remind the entire group “that here on campus, they’re actually surrounded by a high level of expertise among their peers.”

Throughout the trip, Datta continually encouraged the students — experienced and first-time travelers alike — to be thoughtful and self-aware, and he consistently embodied it. When Datta talks, he frequently holds his hands in front of himself, turns his fingers inward, and points to his heart. The tall, lean, laid-back Californian attaches different meanings to his go-to gesture. Sometimes, the gentle taps to his chest emphasize the mindfulness with which he listens to his inner voice. Often, he’s encouraging his listeners to be attentive to what’s in their own hearts.

On the second day of the trip, Chance Evans, ’20, boarded a tourist boat on the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the heart of Bangkok, with a tourist’s SLR camera slung around his neck. As the boat cut across the current, he and the others made their way to the upper deck, where metal benches and flooring intensified the noon sun. Among all of the students, Evans was the one least playing it cool, smiling broadly as he snapped scenery photos and selfies.

Evans grew up in the Virginia Beach area, a high school wrestler who spent weekends heading to the beach with his friends. On a blog that the students kept during the trip, he wrote, “I have always been drawn toward international travel because of my lifelong fascination with other cultures and places.” He’d had to satisfy his curiosity through reading, taking classes, “or vicariously through friends who have been able to travel abroad.” The main barrier that held him back was financial.

“I never thought I would be able to have an experience like this while in college, and it certainly did not seem real until I put my feet on the ground in Thailand,” he wrote just a few days into the trip.

When he put his feet on the ground at the end of the boat ride, he was at Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, a Bangkok landmark whose porcelain spires rise dramatically from the Chao Phraya’s shoreline. There, a man who is both a former businessman and a former monk greeted the group. This man, Hartanto Gunawan, offered students their first model for human trafficking prevention.

After a quick tour of the ornate temple, Hartanto invited the students to the threshold of his learning center, which is on the temple grounds. There, he introduced the Richmond group to his newest student cohort, a group of 16 teenage girls who had just begun adjusting to a new life of pre-nursing education and Buddhist discipline and self-knowledge. They stood in milk chocolate-colored polo shirts and dark brown calf-length skirts on either side of a walkway, palms pressed together in front of their chests as they said in unison, “Sawatdii-ka,” and then again in English, “Welcome.”

Hartanto invited the Richmond group down a walkway into a covered courtyard, where a semicircle of plastic chairs awaited. Many of the girls they had just met, he explained, came from Bangkok or northern Thailand. All of them came from circumstances that put them at significant risk of being trafficked in order to make money for someone else — whether in the sex industry, as domestic workers, or in other circumstances that human rights workers recognize as modern slavery. Hartanto’s center at Wat Arun helps them redirect their futures. Since its 2007 launch, it has prepared approximately 200 students for admission to nursing programs.

As the afternoon sun gave way to storm clouds, wind gusts swept across the bells that hang seemingly everywhere in the temple complex. With their clamor in the background, Hartanto described a student schedule that begins with meditation at 4 a.m. before giving way to chores and study. He then guided the Richmond students through a brief meditation that introduced them to concepts of mindfulness that he described as essential for his program.

After a couple of hours of conversation, Hartanto invited his students into the courtyard. They sat on the floor, introduced themselves individually — some more courageous with their English than others — and exchanged questions and answers with the Richmond students.

This visit with Hartanto and his students became a touchstone for the rest of the trip — for the questions it raised as much as for the information it offered about how one nongovernmental organization, or NGO, goes about its work. Chris Cassella, ’20, a first-time international traveler from Connecticut, later wrote that Hartanto was “a one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life personality who seemed to only have good in his heart,” but for some students, Cassella included, there was also a jarring dynamic in play during the visit.

The concerns began to surface the next day in a comically surreal van as the group made its way to the United Nations Development Program’s regional offices for Southeast Asia. The transportation that the hotel arranged was a party bus with pink neon lighting and a large video screen, so with Foreigner’s 1984 hit “I Want to Know What Love Is” playing, the students began to give tentative voice to what had unsettled them. For example, as Hartanto gave his tour of Wat Arun, a student accompanied him with an umbrella to shade him from the direct sun and dutifully handed him a stream of tissues so he could wipe away his sweat. During the courtyard discussion, a handful of Hartanto’s students knelt on the floor as they approached the Richmond students to serve refreshments.

The UR students were aware that their professor, Datta, an internationally recognized expert on human trafficking, described Hartanto as not just a contact but a mentor. They had been generally moved by the brief meditation he led, and they recognized both the momentous opportunity the center offered and its privileged location in the Wat Arun complex. Hartanto was clearly a man working very hard to prevent his students from being subject to human rights abuses and offering these young women a better future than available in rural villages or the slums of Bangkok. But still, even as the Richmond students knew all of this, they also knew they had sat in uncomfortable silence as these same young women walked on their knees on the floor to serve them cold drinks.

There were no easy answers on the ride to the UN, only more questions. As Queen’s 1985 Live Aid set now played on the screen in front of everyone, Spires drew on his years of experience studying education-based efforts to address human trafficking to sum up just how maddeningly frustrating the issue can be. “Nobody really knows what we’re doing because the problem [of human trafficking] is getting worse and worse,” he said. “How do we grapple with that as we ride around in this van of privilege?”

When everyone arrived at the UN offices, they went through a security protocol that included handing over their passports in exchange for security badges. Once inside, researcher Sebastian Boll, a German national, laid out the scale of human trafficking in a conversation that ranged from forced marriage in China to labor exploitation in the Thai fishing industry. As a regional research specialist, he thought systemically. Thailand’s comparative wealth and aging population make it a magnet for inbound migration from its poorer neighbors, such as Cambodia and Laos. Boll emphasized the almost total absence of protection for people at the bottom of the region’s economies.

“There’s no accident that exploitation happens in industries that are hard to regulate — fishing boats, domestics,” he said. “How do you monitor the working conditions for a sex worker?”

Julia Sackett, ’20, who spent the fall semester in the United Arab Emirates studying labor migration and human rights abuses, asked about the state’s role in labor recruitment.

“The regular systems are expensive and difficult, and you don’t get anything on the other side in terms of protection,” Boll told her.

Bednarski asked whether the U.N. or NGOs might conduct outreach efforts in communities to counter traffickers’ bait-and-switch tactics, in which they promise one kind of job but trap people in another once they migrate.

“The problem is a lot of these campaigns are anti-immigration, which is beside the point,” he said. “There are a lot of good reasons that people think that leaving their communities behind is a good idea.”

I want them to feel that they can learn how to travel well so that they travel increasingly better their whole lives.

After a week in Bangkok, the students gathered in their hotel lobby for one more conversation before flying to Chiang Rai, a city in northern Thailand. Malina Enlund, a Canadian who is the Asia director for an organization called The A21 Campaign — a shortening of 21st-century abolitionists — offered a sobering look at the intervention side of anti-trafficking activism.

A significant part of her work involves removing victims from abusive environments and assisting with the prosecution of perpetrators, often Western foreigners. Her organization insists on working alongside local authorities — “Anyone doing it without them is not legit,” she said — and works with a network of hospitals, therapists, and foster care providers to tend to victims’ long-term needs.

The damage they are trying to undo can be profound. Even infants can be trafficked, used as sympathy-drawing props by street beggars. She told the story of one such infant, a young boy trafficked from Cambodia, through Thailand, and into Malaysia. When he came into the care of A21 at age 5, he had never learned to walk. Now 10, he can ride a bicycle and dress himself. After what he has been through, he will likely never have a conventionally normal life, “but success is, ‘Are they happy?’” she said.

Like Boll had done at the UN, Enlund emphasized the vulnerability of migrants who lack legal status. Without papers, they’re subject to further abuse and indefinite detention in miserable conditions.

“If you go to law enforcement, you’re an illegal migrant,” she said. “People in trafficked situations are more fearful of seeking help than of staying.”

Conversations like these made up one part of the trip’s itinerary. Between them were visits to mind-boggling temples, mind-blowing meals, and mind-decluttering free time. Reminders of the issue the students were there to study were ever-present, whether in the faces of children selling flowers on the streets, unkempt panhandlers with exhausted infants in their laps, or young women continually calling out from storefronts, “Hello, massage?”

Opportunities for social and personal connections were also important. In Chiang Rai, where students spent the second week of the trip, they met Srinuan Saokhamnuan for shopping at the central market and then a cooking demonstration at her house on the outskirts of the city. Spires, who had hired her as a translator when he was doing his doctoral research, told the students they could call her by the nickname “Aor.” A map showing Thailand and Cambodia with Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Angkor Wat labelled

As students took turns in her kitchen dicing the vegetables they’d all just bought, Aor led them through the steps for making a chicken coconut stew and vegetable stir fry with high spirits and an easy laugh, pausing often to tease her boyfriend, a university English professor. The relaxed atmosphere of Aor’s home and in Chiang Rai more generally was a welcome change after a week in hectic and crowded Bangkok.

Once everyone was eating, Aor leaned against the doorway of the kitchen and began to share her story. Her English was strong, owing to four years she spent as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Those four years almost never happened, she told the students, because she was once stateless.

Aor was born without citizenship in any country. As the daughter of migrants who crossed irregularly into Thailand for work, she had no passport and could not travel within Thailand easily. When she won a college scholarship, she had to apply repeatedly for special permission to travel to the United States. After years of dogged effort, she finally gained Thai citizenship and today operates a language school and devotes substantial time to volunteer work that benefits migrant communities.

The evening continued under the stars in her front yard. A couple of students chatted about university politics back at Richmond. Others speculated whether the brightest light in the sky was a star or planet. Nearby, Aor and her boyfriend spun stories of his classes with monks. With all of the bonhomie floating through the Chiang Rai air, probably no one foresaw the argument that would break out after they all climbed into the van to go back to the hotel in central Chiang Rai.

It’s hard to say how it started. Whatever the spark, once the argument got going, the two professors were silently exchanging amazed looks in the front of the van as students behind them argued loudly, often over top of each other, about the models they were seeing.

At the core of the debate was the question of self-determination. The reservations about Hartanto’s school became Exhibit A of how difficult it can be to decide what counts as progress with an issue as complicated as human trafficking. Cassella — who had arrived in Bangkok wearing socks reading “This is what a feminist looks like” — was the most outspoken about what he saw as the limitations of Hartanto’s model, the way it seemed to him to embody paternalism and narrow the students’ ambitions by funneling them all into nursing. Enlund at A21 had talked about helping students pursue whatever they wanted.

Bednarski led the opposition with an assertiveness she honed during her semester in Senegal, where she once found herself in a full-blown argument in French with a guy who’d insulted her at a gym. She had been one of the first of the students to voice discomfort with the Hartanto visit, but she understood it as a potential myopia of her Western eyes. Without a better understanding of what she called “the cultural context,” she didn’t think they should draw conclusions about Hartanto’s center. And, besides, A21 seemed to be far better funded. Even if Hartanto’s program had shortcomings, surely it was better than the alternatives its students faced.

From the front seat, Spires played the mischievous professor, lobbing in questions that stirred the rhetorical pot. Sackett and Evans jumped in when they could, as did Ortiz. The whole scene played out like a graduate school seminar on wheels as they rolled through northern Thailand. As Tanos later put it, “There was no need for a classroom when you have hotel lobbies, swimming pools, and the back of a van to chat as much as you like.”

The next two days brought another model, this time The Freedom Story, which operates two community centers in the Chiang Rai area, one in the city for university and high school students and one in the rural areas for primary school students. The organization provides tutoring, after-school activities, scholarships, and more than 5,000 hours of counseling annually. Hosting the Richmond students was Lucy McCray, a dual U.S.-U.K. national in charge of monitoring and evaluation. As she put it, “I try to see if what we’re doing here is working.”

In an introductory talk in a small classroom surrounded by farmland, she reinforced themes that the students had encountered previously and offered statistics that illustrated them. “Estimated 610,000 modern slaves in Thailand,” one slide read. “9% of the total population.”

She also introduced new subjects, such as her organization’s focus on what it calls “ethical storytelling,” which avoids presenting Freedom Story students as victims-in-waiting and involves them deeply in every step of story development. McCray gave the Richmond students a sense of how NGOs think about donor dynamics when she said that this moral commitment has financial implications.

“We’ve probably lost potential funding because of the way we’ve chosen to frame our storytelling,” she said.

A Q&A brought out questions about the emotional toll of immersing herself in an issue that can regularly break a person’s heart. McCray sometimes goes to counseling herself, she acknowledged. Another of the students asked indirectly about the gender issues they’d hotly debated the night before. McCray advised sensitivity to Thai culture.

“Gender equity here is going to look different than it would in a U.S. context,” she said.

The models kept complicating one another. If the first days of the trip seemed cautious and slow, by the end of the second week the people and places piled upon and reflected back on one another. Within a few days of the Freedom Story visit, the Richmond group crossed the border into Cambodia, where the temple Angkor Wat and two days of volunteering with another NGO — Love Without Boundaries, which operates an orphanage — awaited.

Early on, while everyone stood on a platform waiting for their first ride on Bangkok’s Skytrain, Datta told the students that the real meaning of the trip would develop in the coming weeks, months, and years. Merritt likewise encourages patient reflection over time. She uses the metaphor of a toolkit to which students add with each new study-abroad experience, whether full semesters, independent trips, or short-term programs like Encompass.

“I want them to feel that they can learn how to travel well so that they travel increasingly better their whole lives,” she said. As the moments and experience of travel abroad accumulate, students can begin to “know the vastness of what they didn’t know.”

If reflections that the students shared during and after the trip are any guide, this was happening. “Meeting Aor, Lucy, and Hartanto was life-changing,” Cassella wrote during the trip. “We have discussions nightly about how to bring their kindness back to UR.”

A month after he got home, Tanos, the son of a pastor now leading a congregation in Maryland, reflected on his understanding with words that would be fitting if they were inscribed on the walls of Carole M. Weinstein International Center.

“When you travel, you enjoy being lost,” he wrote. “When you travel with a group, you enjoy being lost together. And when you’re lost, you explore.”

As Encompass moves past its pilot year, questions of how to provide this opportunity to ever more students will remain at the fore.

Matthew Dewald is editor of this magazine. The trip with the Encompass program was his first time traveling in Southeast Asia.