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Radford University's Southeast Asia Study Abroad Program Opens Eyes To New World

RADFORD -- The heat can be intolerable. The humidity is suffocating. Hungry insects descend in waves. But there’s one illuminating sight found in the forest villages of Cambodia which will forever stay in the heart of Bill Kennan, associate dean of the Radford University College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences.

“The smiles are genuine here. Cambodian people are truly wonderful people,” Kennan blogged after he and his student volunteers spent a long, hot, steamy day rolling up their sleeves to help build safer, eco-friendly, composting toilets for local families as part of Radford University’s Centennial Service Challenge. Several of the village’s previous waste disposal systems were, and still are, antiquated and unsanitary, a hotbed for diseases, such a cholera and typhoid.

“For my money if this isn't learning of the highest and most important kind, and well worth university support, I don't know what is,” Kennan said of his team’s humanitarian efforts, which included laying bricks down for the bathroom’s base, digging a hole and constructing walls out of grass leaves.

Study Abroad Students in Southeast Asia

“I could see it in the faces of the students,” he said of the self-assured feeling knowing they helped change lives. “They knew.”

Unwrapping new insight and appreciation of foreign cultures and customs, a stop in Cambodia was just one of the highlights for Kennan and his students during Radford University’s 28-day Southeast Asia Study Abroad program, which also included visits to Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.

“To me, this is teaching at its best—no classroom and no books, but an infinite number of opportunities to see and discuss,” said Kennan, a 23-year Radford educator. “How many times do you get to engage a student about Cambodian social issues on a four-hour bus trip, or to sit up late at night trying to explain the American experience in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, or to discuss why Thai people as Buddhists are so tolerant of many different human experiences?”

Kennan and his Radford students have been making the trip to Southeast Asia since 2006. While he would love to make it an annual occurrence, Kennan’s busy schedule has made the every-other-year voyage an optimal solution.

“I only take small numbers because I want to know the students,” Kennan said of his travel companions. “I want to be able to teach and engage them individually.”

For Radford junior Stephanie Goins, capping the month-long trip off in Bangkok, Thailand has been amazing, featuring a rather up close and personal visit to a tiger temple.

“We got our pictures taken with these huge tigers,” she blogged. “One of them hit me with their tail because I was too light touching them, so it thought I was a bug or something—it really hurt!”

Over the last four years, a total of 35 students have joined Kennan’s international efforts. Each trip, he invites about 10-12 communication majors, both graduate and undergraduate students, hoping to open their eyes to an experience of a lifetime.

“I look for strong students who are interested in politics, culture and religion from a firsthand perspective,” he said. “I look for a group that can share, and can be cohesive and learn together.”

Why Southeast Asia? Quite simply, Kennan has always had an affinity for the mysteriously seductive region for decades, dating back to his own college days.

“One of my professors was a Malaysia specialist,” he said, “and of course, the Vietnam War and U.S. involvement in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand was of interest as a political science major with a concentration in foreign affairs.”

Visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocidal term coined during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979, was an enlightening, yet deeply sobering experience for Radford junior Kathryn Jones.

“It's hard to explain just how I was feeling at the time,” Jones blogged following her tour. “It's one of those things where you don't really want to talk about it — you just kind of take it all in and try to process it in your own way.”

Participating in the study abroad program during her days at Radford, alumna Megan Hyde `05, M.S. `06, called it the experience of a lifetime.

“The entire adventure was the most rewarding memory,” said Hyde, whose trip included stops in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. “Each day in each place filled your head, camera and journal full of memories.”

Like a slideshow for the intellectual sprit, Kennan wants his students to be able to someday look back on their travels and fully embrace the deep bonds formed from their global adventure.

“So much learning happens when people engage each other face-to-face, in person. I like to think that students learn from me and who I am, as well as what I know,” he explained. “I learn an enormous amount from them as people. And, does the learning have to stop when students exit the classroom? I've been interacting with students for years, and we still talk. It's a gift.”

Looking back on her experience, Hyde wouldn’t change a thing, saying her initial culture shock soon gave way to boundless curiosity in the new people and places, fully encouraging students to shake off the shackles of their comfort zone, and take advantage of any opportunity to see the world.

“Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, ‘A man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions,’” she said.

June 4, 2010
Keith Hagarty; 540-831-7749

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