MEgan Markus 

    Equinox Staff


Waking up in a clustered, makeshift house in the slums of Thailand with no running water while surrounded by rubbish and sewage water doesn’t sound nearly as analogous to indulging in a mozzarella and fresh basil panini while walking the cobblestone streets of Florence, Italy. But Marissa Strong didn’t want the traditional college study abroad experience; she wanted to do something “crazy different.” Strong’s sister Kendra, cited Marissa as being driven. “Whatever she sets her mind to, she does it, regardless of what anybody has to say about it,” Kendra said.

Marissa Strong / Contributed Photo KSC junior Marissa Strong spent the fall semester of her junior year studying in Thailand through the Council on International Educational Exchange Program.

Marissa Strong / Contributed Photo
KSC junior Marissa Strong spent the fall semester of her junior year studying in Thailand through the Council on International Educational Exchange Program.

This is why it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Strong traveled approximately 30 hours from Boston to Chicago to China before finally landing in Thailand where she spent the fall semester of her junior year embarking on a journey that would change her life forever.

This journey would include living in the rural villages of Thailand, riding elephants, lying with tigers and consuming crickets and coffee for breakfast. Strong’s father, Bobby Strong, described his daughter as outgoing, friendly and compassionate.

He said he was unwilling at first when he heard the news that his daughter demonstrated an interest in studying abroad in Thailand. “I’m a Vietnam veteran, so my picture of Thailand was not a very good one. Having been over in that part of the world I was reluctant at first to have Marissa studying over there,” Bobby explained, “But then I thought this will be a great opportunity for her and will also clear my mind about that part of the world.” Strong is the only student from Keene State College to ever study abroad following the Council on International Educational Exchange program in Thailand.

The mission of the CIEE program is stated as, “To help people gain understanding, acquire knowledge and develop skills for living in a globally interdependent and culturally diverse world.” This alternative, non-restrictive learning experience taught Strong more in a semester than she has learned at KSC over the past two years, she said.

“It was all about life lessons and there wasn’t anything out of a textbook,” Strong said, “The alternative learning is really cool, everyone should experience some type of education outside of institutional learning.” The most unique aspect of Strong’s learning experience in Thailand was that there were no “weekends” for her and the other 20 American students that were enrolled in the university.

This experience was dissimilar for Strong and the regimented learning style she was used to at KSC. Strong would spend time in the classroom and then travel between 2-5 hours accompanied by another classmate every other week to live in the homes of six different underprivileged families in the northeastern region of Thailand.

After each week spent traveling, the students reunited at the university.

“It was like an integrated learning style and we all taught each other and learned from each other,” Strong said.

While living in the homes of different Thai families, Strong was able to gain knowledge and appreciation for the Thai people and their culture. At one of the homes, Strong was served crickets and coffee for breakfast.

And beetles in the home of another.

“It was kind of cool. They didn’t taste bad, and they were salty and crunchy. But the first time it took me 10 minutes to eat them. I was like ‘I’m really about to eat a bug.’ Whatever, [it’s] protein though I guess,” she said.

Aside from the foods in Thailand being unique, the table manners were just as unusual. “We used banana leaves for everything. We used them for placemats, so we would sit down and eat off that. You eat everything with your hands and you share everything so I was always eating out of other people’s bowls,” Strong said.

Unlike Americans, Thai people in the villages don’t hop in the car and go to the grocery store to pick up dinner for the family. The food that they consume they kill and cook for themselves. Strong explained, “They kill the chickens, pluck them, and cook ‘em right up.” She added, “Thai people are really hard workers. They wake up everyday at 4 [a.m.] to farm rice and are in bed by 8 [p.m.]. The people are very self reliant, which I admire so much. That was a really cool thing that I got out of it.”  Adjusting to the Thai language barrier was one of the biggest challenges for Strong, but was also one of the most rewarding aspects of her learning experience. “We had really intensive Thai language classes – I could speak the language now. It’s your only means of communication so you have to learn it in order to survive. In a day I could go throughout the day without speaking any English. I’m really glad I learned it,” Strong said.

Traveling through the islands of Thailand was one of the most surreal parts of Strong’s experience.

“The islands are just sticking out of the ocean. The water is so blue, you can see down at the coral and I went snorkeling there and swam with the fish. It’s kind of like ‘Finding Nemo,’ I saw ‘Finding Nemo’ fish!” Aside from swimming with exotic sea creatures, Strong spent a half hour in a cage with a tiger.

Strong was able to snuggle up to the ferocious, orange striped animal due to the fact that this type of amusement is a huge tourist attraction in Thailand.

“It was sad because people pay to go see the tigers, so they were drugged and literally didn’t move once. They were just lethargic and it was all for tourist purposes. There were two other tigers and two baby tigers too,” Strong said. Kendra Strong said she is proud of her older sister and the things she achieved while 8, 513 miles away from home.

“I think my sister got a lot out of her experience in Thailand. I’m very proud of what she accomplished and the new people she met, and her new outlook she has on life,” Kendra said. Next on Strong’s bucket list of places around the world to explore? Europe.

The junior concluded, “I purposely didn’t go to Europe because everyone kind of does the traditional study abroad and go to Europe thing and I kind of wanted to do something crazy different. And it worked because it was crazy different. But now I want to go to Europe and check it out.”


Megan Markus can be contacted at

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