Trinity College Students and Professors Visit River Cities of East and Southeast Asia

Shanghai, Bangkok, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh Studied From Interdisciplinary Perspective

​Hartford, Connecticut, August 11, 2017 – A group of 17 Trinity College students traveled to cities in China, Thailand, and Cambodia this summer as part of the new program, River Cities of East and Southeast Asia: An Historical, Sociological and Environmental Investigation, offered by the Center for Urban and Global Studies. The students visited cities including Shanghai, Bangkok, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh from June 8 to June 25 and completed assignments related to the trip. The program carries 1.5 course credits and a .5 Chinese language credit through initial classroom instruction, field visits in Hartford, and subsequent traveling instruction by five Trinity professors and local experts.

​Trinity College students and professors at the ancient city of Ayutthaya, near Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Daming Xing '18
Associate Professor of History Michael E. Lestz ’68 has been involved in Asian travel experiences for students since 1983. Lestz said that the purpose of such trips is to study these cities in an interdisciplinary context, looking at a variety of topics from architecture and infrastructure to local history and the environment. “A city is a very complicated human organization, and cities can be fruitfully studied from many angles,” he said. The Henry Luce Foundation, The Thomas Urban China Studies Endowment, The O'Neill Asia Cum Laude Endowment, The Charlotte Riggs Scholarship Fund, and the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity provided the funding to make this trip possible, Letsz said.

Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies and International Studies Yipeng Shen thinks it is vital for students studying cities, languages, and cultures to have an interdisciplinary approach, due to the increasingly globalized nature of the world. “To better prepare our students for the future, they need to be exposed, cognitively and intellectually, to these combined academic matters,” Shen said.

Shen’s favorite part of this trip was visiting the city of Ubon, Thailand. He said that he liked to take a few days to look at a city that was very different from Bangkok. “Ubon is like a real, local city compared to Bangkok, because Bangkok is very international-like. Ubon is the local city that reflects the real, more underdeveloped part of Thailand,” he said.

​The Trinity College group in front of the Mao statue at Tongji University in Shanghai, China. Photo by Daming Xing '18
One part of the trip that Lestz remembers distinctly was when the party toured a Chinese-owned shoe factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he was surprised by the differences in reactions between him and his students. “Believe it or not, many of our students had not been in a factory. As someone who used to work in a factory, I found that kind of shocking,” Lestz said.

Considering that the incoming class of 2021 will have the largest population of international students in the Trinity’s history, Lestz feels that the College has come a long way from when he was a student in the 1960s. “In the past, American education was very Eurocentric and American-centric. I graduated from Trinity in 1968, and there was not a single course on Asia. The River Cities trip is a benchmark for how far we’ve come,” he said.

Shen also thinks that it is notable that Trinity supports summer programs like River Cities of East and Southeast Asia, especially because students from Asian countries make up a considerable part of Trinity’s international student population, he said. “It’s important for our cultural attitudes here to be more understanding, more tolerant of diversity, and more constructive when it comes to being globally ready,” Shen said.

One way to help achieve that goal, Shen said, is by using programs like the River Cities trip to provide students with experiences without a filter. “Typical American students grew up in a media environment in which they mostly hear voices from western media. Shutting out ideas coming out of a particular political and geographic region is biased. We gave our students ample exposure to opinions and ideas of how Asian people think of themselves and their relationship to the west,” he said.

Lestz added, “The students become aware of the volume of the intersections that exist between the United States, their own country, and these parts of Asia, but also begin to see the way countries like China, Thailand, and Cambodia interact with each other.”

Having the opportunity to travel during the summer, Lestz said – be it a place in Asia, Europe, or anywhere else – is valuable for any student at Trinity. “Some of our students in the sciences and engineering don’t have a chance to go on a full-semester study-away program,” he said, “so these summer study-away programs can be a terrific alternative to take you to a place you otherwise wouldn’t get to know.”

Written by Matt Grahn

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