Studying Abroad, Witnessing Poverty

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NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania — Many college students take advantage of the opportunity to travel and take classes in a foreign country for varying durations of time, anywhere from a few weeks to an entire school year, through their school’s study abroad program.

According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), 283,332 U.S. students studied abroad for academic credit throughout the 2011–2012 school year, revealing a three percent increase in the amount of U.S. students abroad from the previous academic year.

However, what most of these students may not realize when they first sign up for these programs is that there is a very high probability that studying abroad and witnessing poverty go hand in hand.

One such student was 18-year-old Abigail Knight, who traveled to rural Chiang Mai, Thailand for two weeks during the summer of 2012 with the service-based nonprofit organization People to People International (PTPI), the sister organization of People to People that gives college students the opportunity to travel, serve and embrace another country’s culture.

During this trip, a total of 13 students traveled to Thailand to assist The Light for Kids Orphanage, which provides 40 Hmong children from the Northern Thai hill tribes with shelter, education and healthcare.  Along with the other volunteers, Knight taught English to the orphaned children, organized activities and even worked on improving the appearance of the orphanage.

Most of the children of the Hmong tribe at the orphanage were enrolled due to their parents’ inability to care for them.  Minority hill tribe groups living in the mountains often face discrimination since they are not ethnically Thai, causing them to live in extreme poverty with little hope of escaping it.

Knight’s trip to Thailand was the first time she saw the effects of poverty firsthand in the form of families living in minuscule homes who could not afford to feed their children. According to Knight, “I was exposed to how people live in a completely different way that I do—with much less resources. They are very smart there though; the orphanage I worked at was self-sustaining: farming its own rice and raising its own animals decreasing its need for money to feed drastically.” 

Before entering her freshman year of college, Knight has already traveled to France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands with People to People and even Austria and the Czech Republic to play music with her school.

Although this New Jersey native saw numerous cultures just within the span of a few years, she never experienced any kind of culture shock.  The service aspect of these study abroad trips is what really captivates and motivates Knight: “I especially didn’t realize how much I would love service.  After Thailand I realized that what I really wanted to do was to work in helping people abroad.”

All of these experiences opened Knight’s eyes to the poverty experienced by millions around the world. As an incoming freshman at Saint Louis University, she plans on studying neuroscience on the pre-med track in hopes of someday working in global medical aid through organizations like Doctors Without Borders.

While studying abroad is a great academic program, it is also important for college students like Knight to see the effects of poverty while abroad since they are the next generation that needs to continue the ongoing battle against poverty.

Meghan Orner

Sources: Institute of International Education, People to People International 1, People to People International 2
Photo: CEAStudy Abroad

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Meghan Orner

Meghan is a BORGEN Magazine writer from Norristown, Pennsylvania.

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