Margaretville graduate will spend a year in Thailand as Fulbright Teaching Assistant

By Julia Green
Roughly 230 miles north of Bangkok in lower northern Thailand sits a city called Phitsanulok. The capital of Phitsanulok Province, which stretches to the Laotian border, the name of the city means “Vishnu’s Heaven.”
It is here that Fleischmanns native Claire Cella will spend the next year as a teaching assistant, thanks to an English Teaching Assistantship Award from The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Cella, a 2006 alumna of Margaretville Central School, graduated summa cum laude from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas this month with a degree in English language and rhetoric.
During her tenure at St. Edward’s, Cella spent two and a half weeks in Bangkok, teaching at Amphawansuksa School and doing research as the result of a scholarship she received from the university and in conjunction with Cross-Cultural Solutions, a program that specializes in short-term volunteer abroad programs.
The experience, she said, made an indelible impression on her – an impression so strong that she couldn’t wait to go back.
“I just came back and I missed it so much,” she said. “It was a culture shock, but one that I really enjoyed. Generally speaking, they have a completely different culture than we do; they’re not as focused on time, and being so perfect, and… I don’t know, I just felt so much freer there.”
The first time around, Cella planned to do research to support her honors thesis, which was based on the way cultural factors affect communication in the English language.
“I read an article during one of my semesters about how a Chinese student came to America and struggled learning English because of his cultural issues,” she said. “How we write in English is very direct and very individualized, and I was really intrigued by that.”
Cella also had a deep interest in the Buddhist religion, and said that that interest, paired with the fact that Thailand is roughly 95 percent Buddhist, led her to choose Thailand for her initial research.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Asian cultures, so it just worked out that way,” she said.
During her two-week stay, Cella taught at the elementary school, and said she enjoyed the enthusiasm and the energy level of the students, adding that she couldn’t help but match their energy. But, she said, there was also the flip-side to the coin.
“A lot of the students, they go home and are in really poor communities, and their parents don’t come home until 11 o’clock at night and they’re told to go home and lock the doors and stay there,” she said. “And I thought that was really traumatic and devastating for those children.”
Cella took that into account during the application process for the Fulbright award.
“You have to write a grant proposal when you apply for the Fulbright and they want you to have thought about something that would help out or inform the students more about American culture,” she said. “What I want to do is to form an after-school program at the school for these kids, because that didn’t seem to be in place at the school I was at in Bangkok.”
Another positive during her short stay in Bangkok was the friendship she drummed up with a local woman named Tivavan Naudomsup.
“She had the most impact on me of almost anyone in my life this far,” Cella said, adding that she never felt homesick with Tivavan around. “She would get to school early, she’d be the last one to leave, and she’s the one who took me to the communities where the students lived. She would save all her lunch from the day and pack it up and bring it to these kids who were locked up in their homes, and she’d stay and visit with them until their parents came home.
“She wore a back brace and her doctor told her to get more rest, but she just wouldn’t – she kept going and going. She was so compassionate, and I really admired her for that.”
Cella has to be in Bangkok on Oct. 1 to begin her teaching assistantship, which will last 12 months. After four weeks of orientation, which will include intensive study of the Thai language and instruction on how to teach the students, she will begin her teaching tenure at Princess Chulabhorn’s College, a high school in Phitsanulok.
“I’ve been doing a lot of personal reflection about how the Thai culture is, in that they’re more relaxed and easygoing and friendly, and that’s something that I’ve wanted to focus on in my own life, just because my life’s been focused on grades and school and achievement. There’s something in the Thai culture that’s been speaking to me that’s away from that, from being so worried and stressed about getting things done and what time it is. I just want to be able to go over there and let some of that go, and also I want to help them. I was really touched by what I experienced the first time and I just hope that they can get as much out of me as they can, and that I can offer them something, too.”
Cella’s mother, Barbara, also has high hopes for her daughter’s experience in Asia.
“I’m happy for her, that she’s getting to do something that means a lot to her,” she said. “She’s a phenomenal student, and I think she’s going to turn that back around and become a phenomenal teacher, even if it’s just for the year she’s there. I know that she’s going to embrace it like she does anything and give it 100 percent and be far better at it than she ever expected herself to be.
“I’m so proud of Claire,” she added. “All I have to do is keep the wind underneath her and she does her own flying and her own steering.”
In order to take advantage of the teaching assistantship, Cella has deferred her enrollment to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
“Eventually I’d like to teach,” she said. “I’ve always thought of that in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do once I got older and retired from the writing or journalism profession. But I don’t know, we’ll see how this goes – it might be my calling.”