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Students study – and serve – in Southeast Asia

A new Honors College study abroad program brings history to life.

While most American college students were sleeping in this December, eight students from FIU’s Honors College were spending their winter break watching their coursework come to life in Southeast Asia. The 28-day trip through Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia was not your typical study abroad jaunt: rather than taking courses, the students spent a large chunk of time teaching Cambodia.

From students to teachers

A fall semester course prepared students for their expedition by giving them an in-depth look at the history, culture and politics of the region. To Honors College Dean Lesley Northup, the academic preparation is crucial to the Honors College study abroad experience.

“We don’t want to have trips where [students] just sit at some other university for four weeks,” said Northup. “We want to get them out meeting people, working with people, establishing relationships with people, working on collaborative projects and things that are meaningful.”

For 11 of the 28 days, the students became the teachers at a school for underprivileged students in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Each FIU student led a class of some 30 aspiring English teachers. The experience was intimidating for some, but illuminating.

“The students showed us a level of respect that was totally different than what we experience back in the Western culture,” said Ruth Maurat, junior psychology major. “As soon as we arrived, they stood to greet us.”

For senior Sky Choi, the experience was affirming.

“My passion is teaching and this trip has made my conviction to pursue this path even more solid,” he mused in his journal. “Being here in Cambodia and seeing my students work hard to become teachers, despite the fact that they could probably make more money being tuk-tuk drivers or tour guides, helps put things in perspective.” [Read more of Sky’s journal here]

Living history

The trip also brought the students’ fall semester studies to life. Their final assignment during the course was to write a research paper on one of the cultural landmarks on their itinerary, which they then presented on-site. Several of the students were profoundly affected by their selected topics.

“It’s different studying it in the book and actually living it, looking at the actual place,” said Lorena Bezerra, a junior international relations and political science major. “My topic was the tribunals – the international court where after 33 years the leaders [of the Khmer Rouge] are finally being tried. I got to present at the prison where the tortures occurred.”

She expounded in her journal entry for the day: “After a few minutes looking at the rooms and the choking pictures hanged on the walls of the prison, I decided to take a break and sit down to breathe some air because the place is very depressing, and it is hard to stay around for too long.”

Students also presented at various temples and the infamous fields at Cheoung Ek. The best known of the “Killing Fields,” sites where the Khmer Rouge regime executed over a million of their kinspeople in the 1970s, Cheoung Ek is home to the memorial stupa, which contains more than 5,000 skulls of those victims.

“It was heart-wrenching being at the actual site and having to present,” said Maurat, whose paper explored the genocide.

Bitten by the travel bug

For several of the students, this was not their first time studying abroad, and for the first-timers, this was not their last. The Honors College offers four study abroad programs and is quickly expanding. The Cambodia-Vietnam trip is the first to takes place during winter break. Other colleges within the university also offer travel programs through the Office of Study Abroad.

“Once you go you just want to keep going,” summarizes Maurat.