'The Simplicity of a Rice Field': A Firsthand Account of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand

Alumna Cailyn Torpie, BA '12, spent her junior year as a study abroad student in Bolzano, Italy, with the Economics Study Abroad Program. Cailyn's experience in Bolzano, one of five locations where the department operates exchange programs, bolstered her confidence in her ability to handle a Peace Corps volunteer assignment.

In Her Own Words: Cailyn Torpie on Serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand

Cailyn Torpie in the Nan Province, Thailand Cailyn Torpie in Nan Province, Thailand

Where are you and what are you doing? I am currently serving as a Youth Development Volunteer in the Province of Nan in northern Thailand. The community I serve consists of twelve villages, just over 5,000 people, four small primary and extended primary schools, one health center, and a Sub-District Administrative Office. I split my time between all of my village schools, where I work with the local teachers and students, as well as the office, where I have planned and implemented various youth-related initiatives.

The primary focus of my work is on developing students’ critical thinking and other life skills capabilities, a break from the standard rote-memorization method of teaching endemic in the Thai system of education.

About yourself – where are you from, what do you like to do? What kind of grad program are you considering and where? I was raised in Spokane but consider Seattle to be home. I enjoy running, yoga, hiking and exploring nature, and unsurprisingly eating Thai food. I intend to apply to graduate programs in Public Policy and International Development at schools in Washington D.C., London, as well as the Evans School at UW.

What was your objective for joining the Peace Corps? My objective in applying for the Peace Corps was to gain experience living and working in a developing country in order to understand development work in practice. Over the course of two years, we [volunteers] become genuine members of our community, and thus gain a different and unique perspective on the nuances of the lives of those who development policies are aimed to affect.

Photo courtesy Cailyn Torpie Photo courtesy Cailyn Torpie

How did your study abroad experience in Bolzano affect your decision to apply for the Peace Corps, and your experience once there? By my junior year when I went to study in Bolzano, the idea of serving in the Peace Corps was a seed already planted in my head. However, the joy I experienced in moving there for a year, not knowing anyone else prior to getting there, and being able to build a fulfilling life for myself in Bolzano certainly gave me confidence that I could handle the stresses and challenges, and of course the immense joys, of living in another country and culture.

How has your economics background helped you in your work? While I do not use complex economic models in my day-to-day work here, I believe that my background in economics has given me a lens in which I understand and analyze situations differently than me peers with no economics training. Where my friends may see sheer stupidity and ignorance within the many faults of the system of education, I see flawed and misguided incentive structures. I have also been able to teach some financial literacy to the students I work with, as I expect a basic understanding of savings, interest, and debt will prove to be vitally important as these children grow up and enter Thailand’s rapidly changing economy.

A direct translation of a common greeting to see how someone here is doing is to ask: “Have you eaten rice yet?”

What is most interesting about being in Thailand? What is hardest? Thailand is an incredibly beautiful country, and while I am up in the mountains, much closer to Laos and even southern China than to the beaches Thailand is famous for, I am often struck by how stunning the simplicity of a rice field can be. But as many of the volunteers who live in Thailand would tell you, when I close my eyes in gratitude for the opportunity to live and work here, it is not the mountains or rice fields that I am imagining, but rather the people. I have been welcomed into my community and loved without hesitation.

Photo courtesy Cailyn Torpie Photo courtesy Cailyn Torpie

I have been fortunate to find several incredibly motivated locals who are interested and excited to learn different methods of teaching. I have had village grandmas come over to conduct a blessing ceremony for my spirits to protect me before I travel.

The hardest part about being in Thailand for me is comparing my life here and my experiences to that of my parents’ experiences as Peace Corps volunteers here 30 years ago. My parents met while my father was a Water Resource Volunteer and my mother was an Education Volunteer in southern and eastern Thailand respectively. I grew up hearing stories about their trials and successes as volunteers in their time, and I found myself for a while at the beginning comparing the details of their fond memories to the reality of my experience. I am now better able to appreciate the special connection to Thailand that my parents and I will forever share.

Now that I am confident and settled in my work and life here, I cannot imagine not knowing those who have become ‘my people’ here: my host family, my neighbors, the kids, the teachers I work with, they are all woven deeply into the fabric of my life and I am grateful to know them.

For me, it is the Thai people that hold the true beauty of this country.

UW Peace Corps Participation

The University of Washington has been recognized for several years running as one of the top Peace Corps volunteer-producing universities in the world. In 2014, UW was tied for second place - down from first place in 2013 - with the University of Florida for this honor, with 85 volunteers serving. Historically, UW is in third place overall, with an amazing 2,840 total volunteers since 1961. Read the Peace Corps press release here.

Interested in learning more? Check out the UW Career Center Peace Corps webpage.

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