Reflecting on Study Away as an Amherst Alum

A group of students smiling with a box of donuts

Anna with the some of the student staff in Office of Sustainability, as well as Director Wes Dripps, at a spring wrap-up gathering

Over two years have passed since I returned from studying sustainable development in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since then, I graduated with a degree in environmental studies and took a post-bac job at Amherst College’s Office of Sustainability as the Sustainability Green Dean. All of these experiences are fueled by my lifelong interest in the environment, but they’re also influenced by the time I spent abroad, learning about the nuances, joys, and vibrancy of what it means to be sustainable.

When I think of sustainability, I think of healthy relationships. It goes back to that first lesson in Thailand, where we were told how to introduce ourselves in Thai and put our hands together and “wai” or bow when we greet others. Then, our Thai instructors took us to our first host site, a small farming town outside of the city. Their long relationship with the leaders of the organic co-op allowed us to spend quality time with them, visiting their agro-forest and co-op headquarters. I wrote about the story of their switch to sustainable organic agricultural farming in my first post as a blogger for the Global Education Office. Looking back, their story is a simple one. What seems more astounding was the long-standing relationship between the farmers and the study abroad program. I remember seeing a photo on my host family’s fridge with students and a young teenager named Pi Aun. Now Pi Aun is the main organizer for the co-op and has two kids! Our school’s mission was to have locals be the teachers, and I learned so much from the village leaders and organizers in Thailand because of the sustained relationships with our study abroad school. I feel very lucky that I chose a program that ended up being just what I wanted. 

Returning to the United States, I took an internship with a small nonprofit in New Haven, Connecticut that hosts farmers markets across the city. That summer, they were opening a new market in a predominantly POC neighborhood. This required collaboration between the community center and the nonprofit and lots of promotion in neighborhood festivals, press releases, and newspaper features. Here, I witnessed again the development of a strategic and strong relationship that resulted in a fruitful collaboration.

One year after completing my study abroad program, I took the job that allowed me to try my own hand at relationship building. As the Sustainability Green Dean at Amherst’s Office of Sustainability, I had to build relationships across different offices and departments on campus so that we could work together on sustainability projects. This included the dining director, dining hall chefs, student affairs staff, farm managers, professors, and facilities staff. It also included the student staff in our office whose projects I managed. Through these collaborations, I was able to host campus events, run committee meetings, release reports, maintain campus resources, and even create a new sustainable careers professional development program. In some ways I was beginning to feel like a campus ambassador for sustainability, learning how to invite others into the conversation of sustainability by building relationships based on joy, sensitivity, and diligence.

Looking back, I can see just how much I’ve grown when it comes to relationship building and working with stakeholders. Some of these skills I learned when I was abroad. In Thailand, I learned how to communicate and build relationships with people who only spoke Thai, a language I did not know. I was constantly meeting new people, from government officials at a national park to farmers and homestay parents. I learned how to build a rapport with someone who is very different from myself. To build this trust, I had to be a good guest, act graciously and politely in a new environment, and feel comfortable asking for help. 

I could also see how much social structure and language shaped my own understanding of sustainability. When I completed an independent research project, “The Language of Forests” and interviewed the Hmong village headman Tinagawn, I was amazed to find that the Hmong language had no word for “map” or “border.” Returning to Amherst, I eagerly analyzed my own country’s contradicting definitions of “nature” and “wilderness” and how American laws and metaphors separated nature from humanity. I was astounded to find how language shapes our understanding of landscape and reality. I learned the importance of reflecting on my own understanding of sustainability and how it is shaped by my upbringing and culture. This is a necessary step for building relationships and bridging differences in whatever work I do.

Next year, I will be traveling to Taiwan to teach English to young students as a Fulbright scholar. This opportunity would not have happened if it were not for the continued guidance and support from those at Amherst College, of which I am so grateful. I will be a cultural ambassador, exchanging knowledge of my home country while also soaking up as much as I can about Taiwanese culture. Studying abroad was my confirmation that I could live away from home, away from familiarity, and be okay. It inspired me to continue seeing the connection between language, place, and sustainability, and strive to find connection across difference. In Taiwan I also hope to learn more about myself and my heritage, being 3rd generation Chinese-American. I can’t wait to set off on this new journey, and I am so excited to see what new things I learn!

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