Students study violence against women and girls in Thailand and Cambodia

Dr. Peggy Keller Leads Psychology Students on a Capstone Experience

In the summer of 2019, 14 students traveled to Thailand and Cambodia to learn about Violence Against Women and Girls with Associate Professor of Psychology Peggy Keller and PhD student Taylor Elsey. The group traveled to Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, Thailand and Siem Reap, Cambodia during the three-week program.

Dr. Keller said learning objectives for the course included identifying the risk factors for being a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence. “There is a real need to identify the causes of this and how can we intervene, especially in different cultures,” she said.

The course content during the students’ time abroad was a mix of lectures by Dr. Keller and guest speakers who were able to address specificities of Thai and Cambodian culture and history. The group met with non-governmental organizations, victims of trafficking and violence, and professors from Bangkok’s Mahidol University. Questions addressed included “What is being done in the Thai government? How does Thai culture contribute to the sex trafficking of young girls as a systematic practice? What about Buddhism, how does it view women?”

The experience is “not about us going there to save them,” Dr. Keller said. “We are there to learn and be exposed to these realities and hear their stories.”

Sydney Adkisson, a third-year student majoring in Psychology and Public Health, had never been abroad before Thailand and Cambodia. “Now, I want to see more cultures and expand my research to outside Kentucky and the United States,” Adkisson said. “My plan has been to get a Doctarate in Public Health to research violence epidemiology, but I want to do that globally now.”

Similarly, Lucas Hughes, a third-year Psychology major with a Spanish minor, had never been out of the United States. “I’d been wanting to study abroad for awhile, this was a shorter study abroad that was a huge opportunity for me,” Hughes said. “It was great for the credit it gave me. I want to work in counseling or therapy, and I went to get some perspective on culture and trauma.”

The experiences that he had overseas have altered Hughes’ outlook on his own career. “I’m looking at doing trauma counseling, because I see people who are struggling with the past, who want to get better and move on, but they can’t do it,” Hughes said. “With the perspective and knowledge I have now, it’s really changed my perspective … I want to do pediatric counseling, I want to try to improve the lives of kids …This gave me the push to realize that I want to do that kind of thing, do something meaningful for someone who hasn’t had someone in their corner before.”

Hughes encouraged students of all backgrounds to consider the trip and the topic of violence against women. There were only two male students on his trip, and he thinks more should join. “I just think that it’s so tremendously important for everyone to hear this, that it not be a split among the sexes,” Hughes said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, terrible things are happening, and people need to know. It’s a great way to get perspective on other people, other cultures, and other genders.”

“Thailand, because they don’t speak a lot of English there and it’s a nonwestern culture, really takes the students out of their comfort zone,” Dr. Keller said. “You have to be prepared for things to be different than what you were expecting. That’s education abroad – you have to be comfortable with uncertainty, you get off the plane, you don’t know what the airport is going to look like, and how to communicate – but you learn to trust ‘I’ll figure it out and it will be fine.’ It’s a life skill that is important to have.”

Adkisson echoed these benefits of being immersed in a “foreign” culture. “If you’re going to work with people in any capacity, you have to understand why people do the things they do, and the cultures they come from,” she said. “Reading about them does nothing. My first 15 minutes [on the ground in Thailand] were very impactful … But they are so understanding when you walk in and you don’t speak their language. They try to help you as much as they can.”

Dr. Keller will be leading another group of Psychology students to Thailand and Cambodia in Summer 2020 – find out more here.

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