An inspiring, energizing and eye-opening week
Time and again on this momentous trip to Thailand, members of IU’s delegation were given the opportunity to experience up-close and first-hand just how deep the connections between IU and this vibrant country have been throughout the the last 70 years.
Beginning a week ago — from the bustling streets of Bangkok to the northernmost province of Chiang Rai and the steep forested slopes of Doi Tung — the delegation experienced the strength of IU’s relationship with Thailand and, indeed, our engagement with all of Southeast Asia. That relationship has been on full display, drawing attention to the transformational impact IU has had on Thailand through the advancement of academic partnerships, cultural and alumni activity, and building of key institutions. These various initiatives have also translated into opportunities for IU students and faculty throughout many decades to expand their world views through scholarly exchanges and to conduct meaningful research that truly has transformed lives here and back home in Indiana.
It was a week that delivered several extraordinary, often eye-opening developments, including:
- IU President Michael A. McRobbie sharing the grand stage with several of Thailand’s most eminent statesmen at the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Institute of Development Administration, which IU played an instrumental role in establishing and which continues to serve as one of IU’s most prominent partners in this part of the world. Highlighting just how much IU has meant to the success of NIDA, which has had a major impact on graduate studies here in fields related to national development, McRobbie was the only president from a U.S. institution of higher education asked to deliver a keynote address at the historic event. Through IU’s continuing close institutional relationship with NIDA, many Thai citizens have traveled to Bloomington and Indianapolis to study a wide range of subjects in preparation for influential positions in Thailand’s public and private sectors.
- The renewal of one of IU’s lengthiest relationships — a partnership with the oldest university member of Thailand’s modern educational system, Chulalongkorn University (established in 1917). The parallels between IU and CU, Thailand’s top research university, are striking, particularly regarding both schools’ focused desire on advancing a greater understanding of the strategic importance of Southeast Asia. To this end, the agreement calls for CU to send an instructor of Thai language and culture to IU’s School of Global and International Studies.
- An awe-inspiring trip to the Mae Fah Luang Foundation’s Doi Tung Development Project this weekend to learn about the remarkable work the foundation, led by IU alumnus Disnadda Diskul, has done — and continues to do — to improve the health and livelihood of the residents of rural, mountainous Thailand. For many years, the Doi Tung hillside in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province was one of the world’s leading regions of illicit opium production. Years of hard work by the foundation have created a thriving, self-sustaining cottage industry and outlet center in an area that had been ravaged by poverty and de-forestation due to centuries of opium cultivation. Doi Tung is a truly miraculous scene, and delegation members won’t soon forget the smiling faces of the villagers in Doi Tung, including former opium growers and arms traffickers who thoroughly inspired all of us with their gritty tales of triumph over poverty and drug addiction.
Today offered one more chapter to the long and storied history between IU and Thailand, which serves in so many respects as a model for dignified, productive and meaningful university global engagement.
The day began with a meeting and lunch with Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at Srapathum Palace in Bangkok. Last week while the IU delegation was making its trip up north to Chiang Rai, Thai residents all across the country celebrated Princess Sirindhorn’s birthday, a momentous annual occasion. In 2010, IU honored Her Royal Highness in Bloomington, when President McRobbie conferred an honorary IU doctorate on her in recognition of efforts to expand and improve public education all across Thailand, especially in remote and rural areas.
Today, President McRobbie came bearing a different sort of conferral for a member of royalty renowned as a brilliant scholar of anthropology, archealogy, history, educational development and technology — a book titled “Ancient Provence: A Photographic Study” and signed by acclaimed IU photography professor Jeffrey Wolin.
Princess Sirindhorn is a living embodiment of the power of education, which forms the foundation of her passionate and unyielding commitment to improving the lives of the people of Thailand. She also remains a strong supporter of IU’s continuing efforts to foster a lasting friendship between IU and the Thai people. Addressing these efforts directly, IU President McRobbie was able to share with the princess several new developments that will strengthen the IU-Thai connection. They include enhancing IU’s research and teaching capacity in Southeast Asian and ASEAN studies, through the establishment of a new bicentennial chair in these academic areas; the continued development of IU’s new Center of Southeast Asian and ASEAN Studies; new degree offerings in Thai and other regional languages; and new teaching, research and outreach activities on a wide variety of topics related to the Southeast Asian region.
As McRobbie and IU Vice President for International Affairs David Zaret declared often during this busy week of productive discussions and eye-opening discoveries, IU has embraced the mission of deepening the knowledge of and furthering the understanding of Southeast Asia and ASEAN and positioning its new Center of Southeast Asian and ASEAN Studies as a singular program in North America.
Still, almost all of the scholars and educators with whom we met agreed — much more needs to be done in the U.S. to convey the importance of this part of the world.
The transformative power of IU’s Thai alumni
For a top teaching and research university such as IU, nothing suggests the power and impact of education more than the success of its graduates, including those at home and around the world. As President McRobbie is fond of telling alumni wherever he travels, IU graduates are supremely loyal and dedicated to their alma mater and whether they live in Bloomington or Bangkok, California or Chiang Rai, they carry with them the spirit of IU wherever they go after graduating with their degrees.
Their successes truly become the university’s successes, and what amazing successes they often are. Late this afternoon in Bangkok, McRobbie, Zaret and the rest of the IU delegation had the honor of meeting privately with about a dozen of IU’s most prominent and accomplished alumni living and working here in Thailand. They included many leading figures in Thai government, education, business and culture, who, despite their remarkable accomplishments and busy schedules, remain just as interested and engaged in their alma mater’s activities, whether those are new developments in Thai language or cultural studies or IU basketball team winning another Big Ten championship.
Peter Boonjarern is one such Thai alumnus whose words and actions demonstrate how deeply he cares about IU. The head of corporate access-Thailand for Deutsche Bank, he serves as president of the Thailand Chapter of the Indiana Alumni Association and, if delegation members have anything to say about it, possible “lifetime” president for the work he does to foster continuing close connections between his Thai friends and colleagues and IU. (A special shout-out to Peter for his yeoman’s work this week in planning many of our most memorable activities this week, not to mention shepherding us through Bangkok’s notorious traffic, translating our conversations, telling us what foods to order and connecting us with new, hopefully lifelong acquaintances.)
Appropriately our time in Thailand came to a close with a presidential reception for another alumnus, one whose professional accomplishments have made a great difference to IU and have had a transformative impact on improving the lives the people of Thailand. Disnadda Diskul, better known to the people here as Khun Chai, graduated from IU with a degree in business administration in 1964. While at IU, he was captain of legendary coach Jerry Yeagley’s first soccer team, and his leadership continued in Thailand, where, for 28 years, he served as private secretary for the late Princess Srinagarindra, otherwise known here as Mae Fah Luang or “The Heavenly Royal Mother.”
Since 1972, he has held top positions in the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which was founded by the princess to address the problem of poverty and poor living conditions faced by the ethnic minority groups in northern Thailand, including in Doi Tung, which she eventually took to calling her first “real” home.
Just last year, Diskul became the MFLF’s chairman, and this evening he was joined by a number of distinguished guests who represented agencies that are part the foundation or its partner organizations and who, together, have authored one of Southeast Asia’s greatest success stories in sustainable development.
Though he has received virtually all of Thailand’s highest honors, including being appointed a Knight Grand Cordon (Special Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand, Diskul was visibly moved by his receipt of IU’s Thomas Hart Benton Mural Medallion, which recognizes those who have provided outstanding service and support to the university, and he basked in the tremendous outpouring of support from his Thai family, friends and colleagues.
As camera bulbs flashed all around him and McRobbie, Diskul had a special surprise in store, pulling back his jacket to reveal his IU letterman sweater and paying tribute, as only he could, to his time at IU and IU’s continuing partnership with the people here who have benefited so greatly from the university’s decades of global engagement.
As it so happens, Diskul is scheduled to make a return to Bloomington next week — to continue the conversations he had with IU representatives in Doi Tung that may potentially lead to future exchange collaborations for students and faculty. His visit will offer an opportunity for us to engage even more deeply in his ideas and his foundation’s wonderful work. But members of the delegation won’t soon forget the other IU alumni and partners with whom they interacted this week and who have contributed enormously to improved education, health and economic and cultural development all across Thailand. Indeed, in the days and weeks ahead there will be time for reflection on the places and programs we experienced in this dynamic and culturally diverse country. For now, though, we leave here with pride and trust that one of IU’s oldest and most people-centric international partnerships will continue to thrive and prosper.
Goodbye, Bangkok, and hope to be back soon!