Hamline News


Hamline 'Thais'

J-term trip to school in Thailand started by former Hamline professor transforms students' lives


By Marla Holt

Jessica Birchmier ’19 struggled to hold back tears as she talked about Pan, an 11-year-old girl she’d met in January at Starfish Country Home School, a primary school outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, that serves children from the area and from poor hill tribe communities. Birchmier and Pan became friends through shared smiles, games, and a mutual love of Harry Potter.

“Meeting her and spending time in her beautiful country has truly changed me, making me more open to new experiences,” says Birchmier, an English education and anthropology major who is one of 15 Hamline undergraduates who traveled to Thailand during J-term for a 19-day global service-learning course. While in Thailand, they seized opportunities to learn about the country’s culture, history, religion, education, politics, and customs, and they came home changed because of it.


Saying Yes to New Experiences

“I hope they’ll always carry this experience in their hearts and embrace a world that is theirs to see,” says associate education professor Letitia Basford, who led the trip with the help of Jesson Hunt, student placement coordinator in the Teacher Education Office of Clinical Experience.

The trip’s main focus was to build relationships at Starfish, which houses nearly 100 children and hosts another 70 day students, some of whom have lost parents to Thailand’s drug trade either through imprisonment or death. The Hamline group also visited Buddhist temples, took a Thai cooking class, went snorkeling, and visited rescued elephants at a sanctuary camp. They examined issues and governmental policies that affect the region—particularly hill tribe communities—and conducted research on such matters as education, religion, history, tourism, and the environment.

“I was determined to say yes to as many new experiences as I could,” says Celia Knieff ’18, an elementary education and sociology major who’d never flown in an airplane before going to Thailand. “My world has become so much bigger and my love for travel, for education, for learning about others—all of it—has grown.”

At Starfish, the undergraduates connected with the children—often without a language in common—through shared meals, crafts, and activities such as duck-duck-goose, piggy-back rides, and hula-hooping. They went on field trips together to a hill tribe village and a flower garden. The Starfish children performed a ballet, Alice in Wonderland, for the Hamline group. The Hamline students helped the Thai children with schoolwork, and some of the older Starfish children led the Hamline students on trips to local markets, serving as interpreters and helping with the skill of bartering.

“I was amazed at their compassion and kindness,” says Marisa Shackleford ’19, a Spanish and ESL education major who noted during her reflection—as many of her classmates did—that the Thai children have a desire and love for education not often shared by students in the United States. “We take our education for granted,” Shackleford says. “As a future teacher, I hope I can inspire the Thai love of learning in my students.”

The students’ meaningful intercultural exchange with the Starfish children was made possible by a Hamline connection to the region: that of longtime Hamline benefactor Dick Haugland ’65 HDOC ’06, who founded Starfish Country Home School in 2005 and lived on its campus until his death from cancer in October 2016.

Haugland became an entrepreneur and school administrator in Thailand after a distinguished career as a chemist and founder of the company Molecular Probes, which became the undisputed leader in fluorescent probe technology, developing tools invaluable to biomedical research. Haugland taught chemistry at Hamline from 1975 to 1978. He received an outstanding achievement award from the CLA Alumni Association in 1998 and an honorary doctorate from the university in 2006.


Giving Back

Haugland, who had a lifelong interest in serving and helping others, supported disadvantaged children in some of the world’s poorest communities. He often visited Thailand as a retreat from work, and, after the sale of Molecular Probes in 2003, he decided to invest in and create a school there that would benefit even more disenfranchised children.

“He wanted to continue giving back and being a part of the world,” Basford says, and so Haugland opened Starfish School on the site of a former resort near Chiang Mai. He developed “Thaiglish,” a picture-based curriculum used at Starfish that combines Thai and English script to represent the sound of American English words. The Starfish Country Home School Foundation operates additional homes and schools—including one in Chiang Rai that the Hamline students also visited—for hill tribe children and families, offering such services as daycare, job training, and legal aid.

“Dick believed in making a difference in the life of a child, one at a time,” says Dan Loritz ’69, emeritus vice president for university relations at Hamline. “He wasn’t a philanthropist who said, ‘I’ll hire somebody and give him some money to do this.’ He was at Starfish every day with his sleeves rolled up, working.”

Basford agrees, noting that the most important thing for Haugland was that the Starfish students felt loved. “What an incredible heart he had to want to make a difference in so many lives.”


Read more about students’ adventures in Thailand on the class blog. For more about Hamline’s diversity and global learning initiatives, visit the Center for Teaching and Learning web page.

J-term 2017 Thailand trip