Sophie Barnes

Written by Sophie Barnes, edited by Giulia Quarantani (University of Leeds intern) and Kenny McDonald (Project Trust).

Student stood with an elephant in ThailandSophie during her gap year in Thailand.

Sophie Barnes, a current Thai studies student, has always wanted to travel around and experience the world. An international placement with Project Trust not only helped her satisfy her wanderlust but also allowed her to define her future academic path.

At 18, I wanted to get myself out into the world, but in a way that others did not. So, I decided to try volunteering abroad. I volunteered as an English Teacher in a Technical College in Det Udom, a district Ubon Ratchathani Province, in northeastern Thailand (2017/2018). I taught mainly boys, aged 14-22 on average, basic English communication skills. The students had to pass English and Math's in order to continue in their desired skill profession, such as plumbing, engineering, or business. 

My volunteering experience with Project Trust greatly influenced my future plans at the time. Before my Project Trust placement, I had planned to attend university to study TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). However, in Thailand I withdrew my entire application and re-applied to study Thai and English as a Joint Honours course. I had previously looked into the University of Leeds as a potential option and decided against it, as I had obviously not realised at the time that my year abroad would become so influential in my life. I wasn’t keen on starting university until I withdrew my application and re-applied to Leeds. I didn’t want to lose any of the language skills I had gained, and much to my surprise there is a huge Thai community in Leeds! 

I have struggled with the Leeds Thai Studies course due to the pandemic and being unable to have face to face conversation with my lecturer and classmates. However, I have faced communication issues before in my year volunteering with Project Trust. For example, when the students would misunderstand me and we would have to spend extra time on topics, or when they wouldn’t attend for some reason, I was unaware of. I had to think on my feet and just accept whatever I had thrown at me every day when I arrived in work. This has helped me take a more relaxed approach to my Thai Studies and accept that everything is changing at the moment, especially for students.

A new global perspective

Studying a language at university, and living overseas, which I have now done twice, has absolutely changed my global view of the world. Before my year’s placement with Project Trust, I had not realised how large I thought my small city was and how little I had travelled. I thought I had been much further and seen much more when, in fact, there is so much to see and experience out there.

This course, for me, is just the beginning. Meeting new people from all over the world and travelling around Asia has allowed me to take my course at university seriously and live as if I was an actual Thai student. Last year, on my year abroad, I exchanged to Chiang Mai University, as part of my Thai studies course at Leeds. Here, I learnt about Thailand, the language and the culture as a student, rather than a teacher. So, every experience along my degree has helped me understand the course, and why I love it so much. 

I am currently heading into my fourth year of my degree and working at a Thai restaurant alongside this. Next summer, I hope to volunteer with Project Trust as summer staff, and right now I am a mentor for a current Project Trust Volunteer who is right now fundraising to experience their own Project Trust placement and who are in the same position as I was in 2016. I absolutely believe that if I didn’t do Project Trust then I wouldn’t be in Leeds, studying Thai, working at a Thai restaurant, or have close to the number of friends I do at the moment. It really was a catalyst for my future in Leeds. 

I would recommend Leeds University’s Thai Studies Course to anybody wanting to study something different. Even without previous knowledge of Thai, it is the most catering course, usually with not many people which allows for an approach that is more like tutoring than lecturing. It is a special environment that feels like a family. The tutors at Leeds try their utmost to ensure we are happy with our grades and push us every day to achieve what they know we can. 

I would say that Project Trust is unique on the main basis that the time spent in your volunteering placement is so long compared to other volunteering charities. With Project Trust, you don’t just gain a Project Trust Partner, you gain a sibling, second and third homes all over the UK and the world, and the ability to confidently live alone. Some of my closest friends are Project Trust Volunteers. It is absolutely one of, if not the, strongest community I have ever had the privilege to be involved in.

Find out more about Thai Studies at Leeds.

Project Trust supports young people aged 17-25 to volunteer in Africa, Asia, or Latin America with a 12 or 8-month challenge.

Person sat on a bench holding two certificatesSophie after her year abroad in Chiang Mai University.