Mai Charoentham, a Ph.D. candidate from Thailand, has been at MU for almost a year. When he first arrived, he was overwhelmed by the strangeness of a foreign country. He knew no one, hated the food and found it difficult to communicate.
“First I came here I could not speak English well,” he said, “and I was so shy to talk with American people and sometime I get nervous.”
Fortunately, Charoentham quickly settled into the growing community of Thai students at MU. About 50 natives of Thailand enrolled at MU last fall, according to the Office of the University Registrar, making Thai students the fifth-largest group of international students on campus, behind China, India, South Korea and Taiwan.
Nongluck Manowaluilou said that new arrivals from Thailand are embraced by the Thai Student Association, which can help with the transition to life in the U.S.
“Every Thai student who comes here gets help to get started,” Manowaluilou said. “They tell us what to do, how to prepare, what to bring to class. They especially help with housing and finding a place to live.”
With more and more Thai students attending and graduating from MU, Valerie Goodin, the university’s alumni association associate executive director, is working with the Thai Student Association to develop an international alumni outreach program. Goodin visited Thailand last year and showed alumni a video of Thai students preparing for Songkhran, the Thai New Year celebration.
“They got totally silent and smiled because it was a remembrance for them,” Goodin said. “They were very proud to see what Thai students are doing on our campus.”
During Songkhran, celebrated April 13-15, many Thai students return home to celebrate with their families. Last week, the Thai Student Association organized a celebration on the South Quad, behind Tiger Plaza for Songkhran. In addition to informational booths and food from the different regions of Thailand, the event included traditional instrumental and dance performances.
“We host this event to promote our culture and show everyone how we celebrate New Year in Thailand and to express our gratitude to the MU community,” said Adipat Chaichanasakul, vice president of the Thai Student Association.
“They have invited us into a second home. This is our way to give back.”
MU graduate student Thamonwan Thawornthaweewong, who is from Samutkhon, Thailand, said this time of year is typically very hot in Thailand, and people wear cooling white powder and have water fights during the festival as a way to escape the heat. Thai Student Association Treasurer Sudarat Lerdthaworntham, who was dressed in a traditional pink-and-gold Thai outfit, smeared white powder on the cheeks of passers-by.
Manowaluilou said the Thai Student Association welcomes every new Thai student at MU with a potluck party. The group also hosts a karaoke night once a semester, schedules showings of Thai movies and organizes sport days.
“Thai people are very friendly, and once we start talking, we are friends,” Manowaluilou said.
Manowaluilou, who has been here eight years, said she has Thai friends, but she likes to spread out and make friends from other countries. “I left my country to try new things and meet new people,” she said.
Still, Manowaluilou hopes to eventually move back to Thailand, and Charoentham echoed this sentiment.
“I feel comfortable, I think, if I stay in my country,” he said.