Written by Tara Nasse, edited by Giulia Quarantani (University of Leeds intern) and Kenny McDonald (Project Trust)
Tara Nasse was so inspired by her volunteering experience with educational charity Project Trust that she found Thai Studies at the University of Leeds to be her calling. And has never looked back. Tara tells shares more about her story so far…
Tara, pictured right, in class volunteering with Project Trust, along with her project partner.
I chose an international volunteering placement with Project Trust in 2014/15 because I knew that I did not feel comfortable attending university straight after finishing secondary school. I needed more time to know what I wanted to do or learn. I really wanted a drastic change and a challenge. And in Project Trust, that is exactly what I found.
A family friend had previously volunteered with the charity and I became so impressed with what I heard about the organisation, I decided to apply. After attending a Selection Course, I found out that I had been placed in Yasothon Province, Thailand. I don’t think people really thought I would be able to raise what was then £6,000 during my year studying for my A levels to then move to Thailand for a year. But I did!
I was a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in three local schools in a rural town called Kut Chum (Pronounced ‘Good Choom’) in the Isaan region, teaching children between the ages of 3-15.
Challenge and Adventure
My year wasn’t without its challenge, however. At just 18 years old, I really was thrown into the deep end teaching big classes, different living conditions, and a brand-new community and culture that was my home for a year. But even through tough and emotional moments, laughter and enjoyment were never too far away. Everything worked out in the end, and I had a real adventure of a year with Project Trust.
Fast forward to my third year of Thai Studies at the University of Leeds and I had to really dig deep for that reality check when I had a difficult time due to mental health and other personal reasons. My Project Trust experience taught me that things do eventually turn around and to ride through it, knowing joy will arrive soon.
Change of Heart
I arrived at the University of Leeds having deferred a place for Theatre Studies when I left for Thailand with Project Trust. About six months into my Project Trust placement, I realised my experience had allowed me to see new goals and aspirations. I wasn’t quite sure what, but I knew that my Theatre placement was not my calling. After contacting the University about wanting to either change my degree or opt out of my Theatre placement, I was told about their Thai Studies course.
At first, I was shocked; I never knew Thai would be an option to study at a university, let alone the one at which I had already been accepted. As someone who was a dreadful Spanish student throughout high school, languages were never something I had considered for myself. However, during my year with Project Trust, I enjoyed learning Thai because it helped me engage my community, where almost no one spoke English.
It was so exciting using new vocabulary in the local market, noodle shop, or to colleagues. Thai is so beautiful, unique, and interesting to me, and something clicked when I heard it could be an option for my further education. Not to mention, the amazing thing about University of Leeds is that there are so many joint honours options. Therefore, I was able to choose International Development and Thai Studies as my degree.
Both applying to volunteer with Project Trust and being able to switch to Thai Studies were decisions that have enhanced my life and global view of the world immensely. Focusing on the positives, my Project Trust experience made me feel part of a global community.
I went to Thailand to teach but, really, I was also the one being taught. Living in rural Isan was rich with culture, food, smells, parades, festivals, markets, and smiles. Yet, it was far from the comforts of South London. Sleeping on the floor, black-outs, having a bucket shower, no air-con in summer, and dealing with critters are things that I had to survive with and, thankfully, I was able to thrive with. In fact, it has helped me be more appreciative of things and ‘go with the flow’ much more so. A key example is being woken up at 5.00 am with an unexpected knock on the door; a colleague was there, gave us clothes to put on, and an hour’s drive later we were told to lead a walk in a parade. Ahhhhh Thailand. I’m still not sure what that parade was for! We are in a big ol’ world, but all these small communities really matter and bring so much joy to life!
My experience studying at Chiang Mai University, during my year abroad in Thailand with the University of Leeds, was very different from my year with Project Trust. It’s funny how much you can read, study, and look at pictures from somewhere, but when you're there it is so much more. It is hard to have a full understanding about somewhere without going. Thailand surely has plenty of stereotypes about it, looking in from the outside. For example, Thai people love spicy food! Yes of course there are those people who can handle an insane amount of chilli, but honestly a lot of the food is pretty mild, and I even know Thai people who hate spicy food completely. I know to not assume something based on stereotypes or generalisation, because I know I would not appreciate that myself. I now visit somewhere with the mindset that I do not know it all, even if I have studied it for years, I have so much more to understand about a place.
Sometimes the world can seem so huge and complicated, but if we take the non-judgemental and open-minded approach to learn, experience, and explore, soon enough you realise how similar we all are and how beautiful our differences are.
I am currently preparing to move to Wales after spending almost two years living in California. I have moved and travelled a lot, but it is always still slightly daunting to me, as well as exciting of course. I have a job lined up as an International Representative for an au pair company, to interview, assess, and recommend potential au pairs to the programme. I also am looking into teaching roles and working with children in the non-profit sector. I am trying to find my inner ‘go with the flow’ that I discovered volunteering with Project Trust, and that ‘everything will work out in the end’ mindset from my struggles at university. I try to take that with me wherever I go next.
And don’t worry, I have not forgotten about Thai! I have a lovely online skype call with my tutor every week to keep my language skills up to check. I also have an ongoing interpretation course I am studying, which is super challenging, but fun. I cannot wait for Covid-19 restrictions to be lifted, so I can plan my next Thailand visit, it has been three years!
Unique, Inspiring and Employable
The uniqueness of Thai language opens countless doors for students and graduates of University of Leeds because it is such a niche area of study. Alumni have such interesting stories and have vastly different careers. The class sizes are small and intimate, therefore, the level of support from the lecturers and peers goes above and beyond. This community is also very present even once graduating, being able to contact fellow Thai students for help, internships, and advice.
This community feeling is also something I gained from volunteering with Project Trust. Again, it is such a special experience and there are ways to find fellow Project Trust Volunteers to seek opportunity and connect with. I had a few Project Trust Volunteers contact me to learn more about Thai Studies, and now one of them is graduating this year from the University of Leeds!
I myself contacted a fellow Project Trust Volunteer during my studies and managed to get an internship at Chiang Mai citylife magazine over the summer in Thailand. I know so many others who have been able to use this resource and keep in touch with the organisation. They too have asked me for help, for example, with school presentations to encourage future applicants and inspire the next generation of global citizens.
Even if you did not go to Thailand with Project Trust, having a passion for learning something unique and exploring a country in its entirety is what you will gain from Thai Studies.
Leeds offers an incredibly diverse range of degrees that you can match with Thai and you can explore modules about the history, economy, and society of neighbouring countries and around Asia.
I will always have turning heads and intrigued looks when I tell people my area of study. It allows you to stand out from the crowd. The course involves hard work and dedication, and I would recommend to anyone who has a slight interest. Go for it.
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.
Tara and Thai language coursemates at Chiang Mai University’s Language Institute where she studied for a year as part of her degree programme with the University of Leeds.