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Thai scholars join American Studies Workshop at Illinois State

four people seated at a sculpture with the word Normal on it.

Scholars from Srinakharinwirot University, who took part in the American Studies Workshop at Illinois State, visit Uptown Normal. (From left to right) Nuttida “Natt” Theeranartsin, Ruksiney “Ing” Acalasawamak, Chanick “Nicky” Wangphanich, and Tepika “Joy” Rodsakan.

The people and campus of Illinois State University made an impression on scholars from Thailand.

“The ambiance here is so open and beautiful, and the faculty and students so supportive,” said Nuttida “Natt” Theeranartsin. “You feel like you can breathe here.”

Four scholars from Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok took part in the American Studies Workshop this fall. The four-week program is the result of a collaboration between Illinois State’s Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts and Srinakharinwirot. The workshop allowed the scholars to audit Illinois State classes, interact with faculty members and students, and attend fine arts events.

Theeranartsin, an instructor of art education, was joined by Chanick “Nicky” Wangphanich, an assistant dean for academic affairs at Srinakharinwirot who teaches theory of music; Tepika “Joy” Rodsakan, a music educator with expertise in Thai and Javanese traditional music; and Ruksiney “Ing” Acalasawamak, who has a background in gymnastics and teaches dance.

While at Illinois State, Wangphanich and Rodsakan focused on music therapy, Theeranartsin on art education, and Acalasawamak on modern dance.

“I want to share my [Illinois State] experiences with my students,” said Acalasawamak, who smiled when she thought of showing her Thai students techniques she was learning with early education dance instructor Greg Merrimam. “I love improvised dance, but I cannot see getting my students to jump so much,” she said.

The scholars said they found surprises in classrooms, including faculty members encouraging students to speak up during class. “It’s not seen as respectful in Thailand,” explained Theeranartsin, “but here it is a sign of respect to converse with teachers.”

That mutual respect shines through even when classes begin, noted Wangphanich. “When the teacher starts to speak, the students become quiet. That doesn’t always happen at home,” she said, and lamented that classes there rarely begin on time. “The students are often stuck in traffic.” What might sound like an excuse is actually a national problem, she added, with traffic jams in cities like Bangkok choking any journey by car for hours. “We’re right in the center of the city, so it is usually the teacher waiting on the students.”

The kindness of Illinois State students overwhelmed Theeranartsin. “They always say hello, and that they are happy to see me,” she said of Kelly Grove’s art education class. “They share notes and books if I need it. It is a wonderful experience.”

Acalasawamak loved the non-traditional activities in her classes, recounting an ice-breaker that involved students pulling an object out of a bag, then create an interpretive dance to represent the object. “One student grabbed slime, and moved so wonderfully,” she said with a laugh.

The access to resources at Illinois State also impressed the scholars. “Here you have a lot of equipment to help achieve goals,” said Theeranartsin, who noted her classes share the few available sewing machines. “We just don’t have the budget.”

The Thai scholars plan to return home and put in place the ideas gleaned here. Wangphanich said she will explore research in music therapy, and look to combine efforts with her partner, a nurse who works with the growing aging population in Thailand. “Her elderly patients with hypertension use the piano to release tension,” said Wangphanich. “We have many people who face getting older, and the government knows they will need to be thinking about their needs.”

Theeranartsin explored with the Lois Jett Historic Costume Collection, and spoke with curator Jennifer Banning about her research of the Shibori dyeing technique of fabrics. “Creating a collection is something I would like to take back to Thailand—a collection dedicated to Thai clothing.” In the true nature of international exchange, Theeranartsin offered to give Thai fabric to Banning for her lectures on the subject.

All four scholars were pulled to teaching in different ways. Teaching runs in Rodsakan’s family. “My grandfather and my mother were teachers,” she said. Yet each fell in love with the profession, and say their desire to learn more attracted them to Illinois State. “I knew that ISU was very much into education, so that’s why I chose to attend art education classes here,” said Theeranartsin.

“We have strong connections to Thailand through our engaged alumni,” said Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts Assistant Dean of Academic Programs and Student Affairs Janet Tulley, who helped organize the workshop.

Late in August, the College of Fine Arts welcomed a delegation from Srinakharinwirot, which included five alumni of Illinois State. The alumni serve in various administrative roles in Srinakharinwirot, including a vice president, dean, associate deans, and the director of international relations.

All the scholars were awed at the beauty of the weather and the campus. “It is so green, so peaceful,” said Wangphanich. “And the library. Once I go into the library, it’s difficult to leave all those books.”

“It will be difficult to leave Illinois State University,” added Theeranartsin.

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