5 Questions for Maggie Brenenstuhl
In early July, with support from the Cynthia Crocco Spector ’74 and Sherman David Spector Fellowship, I traveled to Tha-Tum, a farming community in northeastern Thailand. Tha-Tum is located in Surin, known as “The Elephant Province.” Elephants had helped their owners earn income in the logging industry; when logging was outlawed, the owners struggled to care for their animals and earn a living. I lived and worked near a farm and elephant study center that works with the community to create sustainable economic development and a humane environment for its elephants.
What are the most fulfilling and most challenging parts of what you did there?
Looking back I really feel like I made a difference in Tha-Tum. Being there a month I was able to develop really special relationships with the people of the village, who were all so grateful for what I was doing. I am still in contact with a lot of the Thai people that I worked with and think part of me will always be in Thailand. The most challenging part of the experience was dealing with the culture shock. Societal norms are so different from what we find in the United States. In Thailand, it is completely normal for a family of four to ride around with no helmets on a motorbike, or for people to walk around the street with no shoes on, but if you point your bare foot at someone or pat their head people will look at you in disgust. You definitely have to be open minded when traveling. I was there for a month, with no hot water, electricity or any idea what kind of meat I was putting in my mouth. It was a very humbling experience that opened my eyes to the challenges people outside of my "first world bubble" face. These people have next to nothing, yet they are always smiling and enjoying life, I wish more people lived like this.
What lessons from Eco Practicum did you apply in this new program?
Working on the educational farm during my time at Eco Practicum gave me a great advantage in the village and I was able to apply many of the techniques that the Eco Practicum farm educator, Benno, had taught me when I was helping plant and harvest the elephants food. I was also able to share and cook many of the great recipes the kitchen manager, Andrea, taught us to the people I lived with, which they absolutely loved!
How have your out-of-the-classroom experiences affected your experience at school?
I feel like both my experiences at Eco Practicum and Thailand this past summer have affected me a great deal in the classroom. They were both such unique experiences that have allowed me to contribute to class discussions in a way that my other classmates cannot. No one else at my school can say that they have toured the fracking infrastructure Dimock, PA with an citizen journalist or have gotten to dive head first into a tank full of fish in an aquaculture center. I am constantly referencing the different people we met and the places we went in the Catskills. As for Thailand, I am constantly being asked questions about the country and what I was doing there. I think I will forever be remembered at Sage as “The Elephant Girl”.
What’s one thing you think everyone should know how to do?
There is something to be said about knowing how to travel by yourself. When I first told people I was hopping a plane to Thailand and staying there for a month, they thought I was insane. Sure I was a bit scared at first, but once I met up with my group and started volunteering, I was glad I had gone on my own. I was able to learn a lot more about myself, force myself to meet new people and I am confident that I could successfully travel somewhere else in the future on my own and be fine. Another great life skill that can be very valuable is the ability to assimilate. I found that the foreigners who tried to adapt to the Thai culture were much more welcomed than those who refused to give up their home countries' ways. The Thai people are so friendly and more than willing to share their culture and my experience became so much more meaningful when I started acting more native and speaking their language.