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Gennie Gebhart, second from right, at a traditional Lao wedding that she attended in November with nearly 700 other guests. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” she said.
By Tori Hartman
April 28, 2014
When Gennie Gebhart boarded a plane to Laos the day after graduating from the UW Jackson School of International Studies last spring, she had no idea what to expect or how different her future might look.
Gebhart was nominated by the UW and selected by a national committee as a recipient of the exclusive Luce Scholarship Program, which immerses people in Asian cultures.
She spent the last year living in Laos and Thailand, learning to speak the local languages and working at the Chiang Mai University Library. She is the only foreigner working at the library, and she said the 90 other Thai staff members have become like a giant family.
Gebhart launches a lantern in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on New Year's Eve.
"The Luce Scholarship is really unique. Instead of putting their scholars into open positions, they do it the other way around, they take Luce Scholars, then look for the perfect organization or job," Gebhart said in an interview from Thailand via Skype.
Before beginning the program, Gebhart had no experience speaking Lao or Thai, so for two straight months she spent 20 to 25 hours a week learning the Lao language.
In December 2013, Gebhart moved to Thailand because of visa complications (the Luce program usually keeps its scholars in one country for the entire year).
"Lao and Northern Thai languages are mutually intelligible and very similar," Gebhart said. She continues to take Thai language lessons for at least five hours per week.
Gebhart plans to stay in Chiang Mai for the foreseeable future to remotely complete her master’s degree with the UW Information School's program for Library and Information Services. “A lot of times this year, I’ve run into professional questions, or methodology questions, or even ethical questions, and I just keep thinking, ‘I need to go to grad school.’”
Gebhart at Wat Pho in southern Laos.
Gebhart said she appreciates working in an international academic environment. As an undergraduate at UW, Gebhart worked in several different libraries on campus, which gave her plenty of experience for the position abroad. She is working on open access initiatives and information justice at the Chiang Mai University Library, as well as assisting with research projects.
Gebhart also spends her time volunteering with local NGOs, helping Burmese refugees.
Making personal connections has been one of the most important aspects of Gebhart's experience in Asia. Gebhart said she stops nearly every day on the street where she lives to chat with a woman who makes grilled bananas. She also talked about being a local at a Phad Thai restaurant, where they remember her order every time she visits.
"The whole year is a process of getting to know people who you would never otherwise meet,” Gebhart said, “and learning the language to get to know the country better."
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