By Barbara Gaerlan
(with files from Rebecca Kendall)
Just 50 days into his appointment as Thailand’s Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Chaiyong Satjipanon visited UCLA to learn about the UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and how the Royal Thai Government’s annual gift of $50,000 is making an impact on Thai Studies. Consul General Jesda Katavetin; Maleewan Chinaprayoon, first secretary, Royal Thai Embassy; and Consul Komkrich Chongbunwatana also attended the June 7 gathering.
The majority of this generous funding, which has been provided annually since 2009 in various amounts, goes to support Thai language instruction. The reminding funds are directed to cultural programming and travel grants for students to study in Thailand, said Michael Ross, Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. UCLA is one of seven universities in the United States that have been supported by the Royal Thai Government as part of its effort to expand Thai Studies abroad.
Ross also reported on the activities related to Thai Studies of several UCLA faculty who were unable to attend the meeting: Robert L. Brown from the Department of Art History teaches about Thai art as well as insuring that Thai material is exhibited at the large Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he serves as South and Southeast Asia Curator. Professor Robert Buswell includes Thailand in the programming of the Center for Buddhist Studies, which he directs. Buswell also serves as the head of the International Institute’s UCLA-Thailand Executive Committee. Finally, Professor Roger Detels from the Department of Epidemiology in the UCLA School of Public Health coordinates the Fogarty program which brings medical doctors from Thailand and other Asian countries to UCLA to receive graduate training in HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment. A number of Thai graduates of this program are serving in significant positions in the Thai Ministry of Health and other public health agencies.
Interim Vice Provost Cindy Fan of the International Institute presented welcome gifts to the delegation. She also reported on her own visit to Thailand several months earlier where she gave the keynote address at a conference on globalization, and met with several hundred Thai high school students and their parents who were interested in the future possibility of studying at UCLA.
Ambassador Satjipanon was especially impressed with UCLA’s language teaching program. “From the information given to us by the consulate in Los Angeles, we realize that UCLA is the best among all seven universities [because of its ability to teach] language at the three levels” to a large number of students, said Satjipanon. He added that the university is also fortunate to have Dr. Kantathi Suphamongkhon, the 39th Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, teaching here as a professor in the International Institute, as well as serving as a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations. Suphamongkhon was present at the meeting, and provided some information about the course that he is teaching on “Diplomacy, Globalization, and Development” in the Global Studies program.
Dr. Supa Angkurawaranon, the Thai language instructor, briefed the ambassador about the language program. In Fall 2011, a record 28 students were enrolled in the introductory Thai language class. Intermediate and advanced level enrollment was also strong, she reported. She also pointed out that UCLA students studying Thai include both heritage learners (those with some informal knowledge of the language from home or travel), as well as second language learners. It is challenging to have students with different backgrounds and needs in the same class, but she has worked hard to make the class useful to everyone. In the process she has developed her own materials, some with financial assistance from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
UCLA boasts some of the highest enrollments in Thai language classes in the United States, said Professor George Dutton, vice chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (where Thai language is taught), who spoke about the history of Thai language teaching at UCLA. “Our program supports undergraduates majoring in a number of degree programs – Southeast Asian Studies, International Development Studies, political science, and history,” said Dutton. “It also provides language support to graduate students who are working in Thailand.”
Student interest in Thailand results in five to 13 UCLA students travelling to the nation each year (and approximately 30 going from the entire University of California), said Danilo Bonilla, international programs counselor in UCLA’s International Education Office. He told the delegation about the Education Abroad Program at Thammasat University, located in Bangkok, as well as other UCLA exchanges and summer travel programs.
Jade Alburo spoke about her role as Southeast Asia Librarian in the Young Research Library. She explained that UCLA is one of just a dozen university libraries in the U.S. that houses a substantial collection of materials from Southeast Asia. Of the 100,000 items on SE Asia in the UCLA collection, which include books, microfilm, periodicals, CDs and music representing more than 30 languages, 15,000 are from Thailand. Nearly half of the Thai materials have been secured over the past five years, she said. She went on to say that the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, through funding from the U.S. Department of Education, has provided support to help the library catalogue its Thai materials, something that Alburo is grateful for. Alburo reported that she is working with other SEA librarians in the U.S. to develop these holdings further, ultimately creating a comprehensive national collection of Southeast Asian materials even in difficult budgetary times.
Finally, several students from UCLA’s large Thai Smakom club reported on their efforts to do outreach about Thai culture, both on campus and off. Their annual Thai Culture Night is increasingly professional and well-attended. In addition, they participate actively in four or five events each year in the Thai community such as at the large Songkran Festival in April, which takes over Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie and which is attended by more than 100,000 people.
Overall, Ambassador Satjipanon received a portrait of the very broad scope of Thai Studies at UCLA. All of the participants in the meeting joined in thanking the ambassador, in particular, and the Thai Foreign Ministry, in general, for their support in making this program such a success.