Thursday, August 11, 2011

Full Circle

Nothing is perfect. The best way to breed disappointment is to enter anything with mile high expectations. As my first travel abroad and international career experience, my summer 2011 IE3 internship with the Elephant Nature Foundation (ENF) carried the weight of unrealistic expectations long before I set out. This internship was to make me a new man, one who could make a difference through hard – work, ingenuity, and pragmatic thinking. It was supposed to take my career to the next level and give me a set path into the future. I was also supposed to gain a deep understanding of a different culture and, in turn, know what it means to be a global citizen. With my final week ending, I cannot say I have achieved any of those goals. Instead, I know shades of the success I originally hoped to see. And, given everything I’ve experienced on this journey, I think they’re beautiful nonetheless. Society and our perception are never black or white, but the shades in between. To expect any experience to be an unmitigated success, or look back and see anything as a total failure, seems like folly. Even as I leave with expectations unmet, this internship was everything I needed it to be and more.

In terms of creating a new, difference making me, the ENF internship has been successful through altering my perception of who I was to begin with. Working as the media and outreach intern for an internationally renowned conservation group has been a challenging experience, but the work seldom pushed me into the development of radically new skills. I called upon my education in environmental issues, conservation, and nature / technical writing, gained through the University of Montana Environmental Studies program, as I created new editorial materials, and I was never surprised by my capabilities in these regards. Similarly, the photos I shot to promote the ENF and assistance I offered on Wildlife Filmmaking shoots were never far removed from my greatest successes in the Professional School of Journalism. To become a new me, I would have to be leaving with a significantly different repetoire of talents and feel profoundly transformed. Instead, I have honed and developed the skills I arrived with and am profoundly glad to be me. I imagined a new person would be required to find success, but success came as who I am. If and when I achieve my goals, it will be because I dedicated myself to a cause and overcame adversity, not because I metamorphosed into someone better. Midway through my internship, I became disappointed that no one new was emerging. At the end of my internship, I am thrilled to be leaving as who I am. It turns out, twenty-three years of life, with five on the Dean’s List of a university, can make you a hard – working, ingenious, and pragmatic person. And, though I haven’t done it yet, sometime in the future, I feel I’m equipped to make a difference.

To create positive change, I think more environmental activists and professionals will need to possess business acumen. If people are to understand sustainability and green thinking, the first step will be to sell them on it. ENF founder Lek has created new hope for the Asian elephant in Thailand through running a successful business and creating an ecotourism niche in a burgeoning industry. People all over the world now care about these elephants and their treatment, not because of a pamphlet, petition, or epiphany but because the Elephant Nature Park offers them a means to support their family, to gain status in the community, and to witness another exotic corner of the world. Seeing her projects and working within the foundation, I have seen the positive impact each has while also fuelling economic and community growth through revenue. Lek is a rising star in the world of conservation because she is passionate AND her operations are successful businesses. Before this internship, I was considering Graduate programs in Environmental Advocacy and Sustainability. Now, I want to get my MBA with a focus on Green Communication and Marketing. I had expected this internship to chart my future and ensure set opportunities, which was unrealistic and undesirable. Instead, it has given me a blessed new direction for my career, and the next step is mine to take. I wanted certainty and am leaving with more options than I ever knew existed. My horizon of possibilities has widened, with the sky more limitless than I imagined possible.

One of my overriding aspirations with this internship was to develop a true understanding of Thai culture, to leave knowing the nation and its people. I now realize how foolhardy a goal that was: to believe a foreigner in one city could understand a country with thousands of years of history is ridiculous. For my three months working in Chiang Mai, I’ve barely scratched the surface of northeastern Thai culture. I know their indirectness, their warm, genial nature, and bits of their faith and history, but I don’t really know what it means to truly live here. I could dedicate the rest of my life to understanding the Thai people and still die unsatisfied. The result of this realization, outside of my initial na├»ve disappointment, has been a better perspective on culture and becoming a global citizen. Every place and people possess unique strengths and faults. Thailand seems far from perfect, but so is the U.S.A. So is the rest of world for that matter. There is no one size fits all solution for the globe, only answers that work for specific situations at specific times. Globalization and new telecommunications have created a smaller world, but I think it is curiosity, humility, and grace that will allow us to create harmony. Everyone, everywhere will need to be less assuming and open to new perspectives if we are to save the planet. Being a global citizen means never accepting one answer, but instead accepting a multitude and blending their ideas for pragmatic, place - based prescriptions for change. Our lives have gone global, but remain as amazingly different as ever. One world will never mean one culture.

During one of my last days at the Elephant Nature Park, Lek asked if I wanted photos with the elephants. It was a gloriously bright day and we walked with overnight guests into the main sanctuary, encouraging the animals to approach with palm sugar and bananas. The elephants swarmed Lek, grappling for the food and her attention. Faa Mai, a young cow in the herd, almost knocked her over in a bid for affection. The scene and its joy were reminiscent of my first day at the Park, the shoot when I confessed this internship felt like the most important thing I’ve ever done. Eighty - one days and many educational, frustrating, and unique experiences later, I still mean it. I have grown immeasurably during this summer and cannot wait to see what's next. It feels like the adventure is only just beginning, and I am more prepared than ever to experience everything life has to offer.


I would like to thank the University of Montana Environmental Studies Department and Professional School of Journalism for making this experience possible and giving me the skills I needed to assist the Elephant Nature Foundation. I would also like to thank IE3 International Internships for opening up this opportunity and many more for students across the Northwest, as well as the Davidson Honors College for providing all U of M students with credit assistance for these incredible experiences. Family and friends also played a large part in giving me the moxie necessary to cross an ocean for the first time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


After a week of illness and work, I wandered the old city. The Scary Factory, a quirky place I knew in passing, beckoned, but most nooks and crannies were distracting. Too many local flavors and ancient artifacts hiding in the wings, too little time. And my mood, like the sky overhead, was overcast. The bittersweet tide of change was coming in, and I was bracing to be swept away: my days in Chiang Mai are coming to an end. Even as I photographed the sights, my mind wandered to what I may never see. The places and people and moments I might never get the chance to experience once I’m gone. I’ve done a fair amount here but there seemed to be so much more I could have accomplished. I meandered into Suan Buak Haad City Park and, as I pondered, the clouds let loose. A drizzle became the rain became the deluge. I wrapped my camera in my shirt and ran past palm trees and vendors to the park’s small coffee shop. It was small and chic in the post Starbucks, anonymous kind of way, not the kind of place to spend some of my final, precious time in Chiang Mai. I would wait out the rain and rush out to see more, to feel more, to experience more. I knew it couldn’t stay that intense very long.

The rain knew otherwise. Two hours in, and I’d reluctantly planted myself on a plush gray couch with a Thai ice tea in one hand, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now in the other, and the muzak tinged sounds of their coffee shop mix CD blending with the rain. Young high school / University students sat at a nearby table and half studied, half socialized. Cell phones were frantically beat in text mode, secrets were whispered, smiles and gossip were shared; all in Thai, and all of it perfectly clear to me. I can’t speak their language, but thankfully cheaper than the Pimsleurs and Rosetta Stones of the world is the gift of experience. I had been them, living the same everyday occurrences, half a world away. I could see our cultures meeting in the middle, in that faux posh respite from the rain. I began to feel contented again, began to not mind an entire afternoon in the coffee shop. It was pouring outside, but the storm inside was starting to pass.

Thailand was supposed to be a new beginning. I was going to leave a better version of me, a Matt 2.0. This Matt would have his career track established and his head on straight: no more unrealistic daydreams, hours wasted dancing to terrible pop music, and over emotional flurries. He would be a true global citizen, calm and collected, one able to achieve realistic goals through a potent mix of ambition, hard – work, and pragmatism. I had waited, just as I waited for the rain to pass, for that Matt to arrive. Months in Thailand had gone by and I’d never seen him; somehow he’d forgotten to stop in Chiang Mai. I had waited through the scary, exhilarating, disappointing, and exciting experiences at the station to find my passenger M.I.A. Outside, I was lost in the question: if this internship couldn’t bring a much improved me, one who made real differences, then what could? Inside, on that couch with those things and people, I’d found my truth. Nothing could make me that man, the sophisticated one I sought, any more than they can change the weather outside. Becoming him could only happen on my own accord. I noticed my reflection in the rain - streaked window; I was 23 and looked like the person I wanted to be.

I got up, paid for my drink, and walked into the unrelenting rain.