Communications and dance departments provide immersive experiences in Thailand


by Stephan Early, Staff Writer

Many study abroad programs offer the promise of exotic locales and spectacular sights, but  the school of communication at San Diego State is offering a trip to Thailand that just might change more than one’s surroundings.

The chief undergraduate advisor for SDSU’s communications program, Michael McHan, said students can gain a memorable experience from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that students who participate in this program find that being in completely different surroundings makes them question the environment they grew up in.

This summer students can accompany McHan and Associate Professor Joseph Alter as they travel to Thailand on behalf of the communications and dance departments at SDSU.

Upper division classes in these departments are offered for this program, but are open to students of any major.

“(This program was made for) all majors, because our goal is to attract as many students as we could,” said McHan. “We didn’t want to make it just dance or comm students.”

This will be McHan’s seventh trip to Thailand.

“I always learn something new,” he said. “Whether it’s the first time or the fifth time, each trip has opened me up to a new experience.”

Students will be observing communication theories, such as Stella Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory and Edward T. Hall’s cultural variability theory.

Exploring differences in polychronic versus monochronic time orientations, masculinity versus femininity, and collectivism versus individualism will also be on the agenda.

“I identify as Mexican-American, which is a fairly collectivistic culture much like Thai culture.” communications senior Briana Marquez, who previously took part in this study abroad program, said.“I actually felt a connection with the Thai people.”

McHan and Alter have a shared interest in what McHan calls “contemplative practices,” which is the idea of using meditation techniques and mental exercises to understand one’s own mental programing. The goal of this practice is to be able to mindfully anticipate what triggers different emotional responses.

To gain a better understanding of these techniques, students will travel to a Buddhist university and hear a lecture from a monk on the proper way to engage in these practices.

“Athletes call this ‘getting into the zone,’” McHan said. “They say that nothing else matters and everything slows down in front of them.”

This clarity is a focal point for students on the trip to try to achieve. While McHan said that each student’s experiences are unique, he also said often sees visible changes in demeanor and temperament from most of the students.

While some students find the adjustment very easy, others may have a hard time taking in everything their new surroundings have to offer.

“Some students resist in a hardcore way,” McHan said. “They’re not ready to accept that they’ve lived lies or they’ve been lied to, and, in some instances, are privileged.”

He maintains that in some cases, the trip is so much to process up front that some students don’t have real awakenings until they have had time to unpack their thoughts and emotions. Sometimes this happens months after they have already returned.

“What I want is to create  a campaign of kindness and compassion,” McHan said. “Imagine if just those 25 people come back to campus as messengers of happiness and compassion.”

Marquez experienced this, and spread what she learned from the program to her family.

“Since I have been back my mom has really researched Buddhism and has connected with it.” Marquez said, adding, “I am happy that my experience inspired her to find her own path.”