New Canaanite returns from Peace Corps mission in Thailand
Published 1:05 am, Thursday, April 29, 2010
Ceresa launched her college career at Duke University to study cultural anthropology. The summer after her freshman year, she studied philosophy in Greece. She spent a semester at sea as a junior, and upon graduation she taught English in Argentina before relocating to help a friend open a language school in Costa Rica.
"I've always had a wanderlust and I've always been interested in different cultures and languages and countries," she said.
While in Costa Rica, Ceresa applied and earned acceptance into the Peace Corps, a mission she said she has wanted to embark on since she first heard about the ambassador volunteer program in high school. She signed on for education and teacher training in Asia in November of 2007. In January, she moved to Thailand.
Ceresa's mission in Thailand was carved by history. About five years ago, the Royal Thai Government mandated that every school provide students with English classes, Ceresa said.
"My goal was to work with teachers to enhance their English to enhance their ability to teach English," she said.
After three months of training, during which she learned how to speak Thai, Ceresa voyaged alone to a small town called Thung Tako to achieve this goal. At her post there, she said she was completely immersed in a conservative culture four hours from the nearest Peace Corps volunteer.
Ceresa rented a house in the middle of town. Coffee plantations and mountains sit to the East of the town and a beach is to the West, she said.
In low-income coastal communities like Thung Tako, which is in the province of Champon, many schools don't have the resources to comply with the government's English education mandate, she said.
"[The teachers at the school] had really rudimentary and outdated teaching techniques," Ceresa said. "At the end of the semester, a teacher would see a student's name and guess a grade."
Ceresa said some of the education system is based on punishment techniques. For example, teachers sometimes strike students with bamboo sticks, she said.
"The hardest thing was learning how to work together with them," she said. "You can't just walk into the door and say, `I have ideas and ways to do this better.' That's not going to work. That's a little too imposing. ... [In America], we have a very assertive, time-efficient way of working. The expectation of the level of productivity is high. But in Thailand, they work on trust and social compatibility. It's more about making sure everyone is getting along than making sure everything is getting done."
Ceresa said the school staff she worked with has a lack of resources and a lack of wealth. She described the schools as two-floor buildings wrapped around courtyards. The first floor is open-air without walls; just wooden support beams to support the second story. Walled classrooms occupy the second floor, she said. Most of the schools in the country are built in or around temples, she said.
"Sometimes you have an idea that, in your mind, seemed like a great idea, and in a Thai's mind, it was just too different," she said.
Ceresa describe Thai culture as conservative. They wear high necklines and keep their limbs covered in clothing, she said. Yet in other ways, Ceresa said the culture is also very open.
"Thai people live in a communal society," she said. "They call it the land of the smiles because they really appreciate when you wear your heart on your sleeve. They are very hospitable. It's all about keeping harmony among the masses."
Ceresa spent 27 months in Thailand serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. Last Monday, she returned home to New Canaan, only to embark on a road trip to Seattle a few days later.
"Before leaving for the Peace Corps, I wasn't a patriotic American," she said. "Now, I definitely don't take for granted what we have here ... especially in New Canaan -- holy moly. Living abroad where people don't have basic things ... has really given me a grand appreciation for America and for everything we have here in this town."