When Emily Powers ’13 traveled to Asia this summer to research the impact that globalizing influences have had on the social and cultural norms among a people of Northern Thailand, the Akha, she had one aim: to grow. It’s safe to say that she succeeded. By the end of the five-week trip, the English and communication major had immersed herself in a culture she’d never heard of before arriving at Le Moyne as she studied the development of a written language within a society whose tradition had previously been oral.
Powers was one of five students selected from Deborah Tooker’s Research in Anthropology course who lived among the Akha people and conducted research funded by the Freeman Foundation through ASIANetwork, a consortium of approximately 160 North American Colleges that strives to strengthen the role of Asian studies in liberal arts education. The students later presented their findings, first to the villagers and then to students and faculty at Chiang Mai University, and wrote a paper about the experience that will be submitted to the ASIANetwork/ Freeman Foundation. The type of anthropological research the students conducted gave them a deeper knowledge of the local culture than they would have gained through a study abroad program.
“I tried to keep an open mind because I wasn't sure what the trip was going to be like,” Powers recalled. “I think there's something important about going into a situation with an open mind and embracing all the circumstances you encounter.” For example, her original plan to compare oral stories with their written versions was not feasible and she changed her project to look at the social and political dimensions of the new writing system.
Education experts have long known that undergraduate research has myriad benefits; it reinforces what students have learned in the classroom, allows them to investigate a question more deeply, and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with others. Through their unique experience in Thailand, though, the Le Moyne students also learned how to navigate their way through a place where the people and language were brand new to them; came face-to-face with the dichotomy that exists between the rich and poor around the world; and discovered new things about themselves, including how satisfying it can be to see the impact their work had on others.
Those were precisely the lessons the faculty mentor, Tooker, was hoping to instill. A professor of anthropology, she has been studying the politics of cultural identity among both dominant and non-dominant groups in Northern Thailand, focusing on the Akha and Thai peoples, for the past three decades. However, this was the first time she brought students along to conduct their own research. Those undergraduates – Powers, Kelsey Woodrick ’13, Frank Sapere ’14, Mallory Munro ’13 and Leon Cominsky ’13 – dove into their work. Powers conducted research on how the relationship between orality and literacy has evolved with the introduction of a written script among the Akha; Woodrick studied the advent of formalized education and the impact on ethnicity in schools; Sapere investigated the community’s changing medical practices; and Cominsky delved into the impact coffee has had on Thailand as a global cash crop. Their work was sponsored by a grant from ASIANetwork. A fifth student, Mallory Munro ’13, joined the group to conduct research on social media among the Akha. Her work was funded by the College’s Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.
While their work spanned diverse fields and topics, it was bound together by a single theme. Each of the student’s research focused in one way or another on the relationship between the youngest and eldest Akha villagers, and addressed the preservation of Aqkaq-Zanr, the Akha “way of life.” There exists a “generation gap,” not unlike those common in many parts of the world, and it has led to some tensions, Tooker said. She hoped that her students’ work could help to raise awareness and create a dialogue between them and the Akha people, while also helping the students to see the world around them through “an anthropological lens.”
The results of the students’ research will be presented in a poster session at the annual meeting of the ASIANetwork foundation in Chicago in April 2014.