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Enjoy Magazine

Shasta County Students Study Abroad in Laos (SAIL)

10/25/2017 11:00AM ● By Gwen Lawler Tough

Cultural Exchange

November 2017
By Gwen Lawler-Tough
Photo courtesy of Katlyn Plummer

This past July, 18-year-old Katlyn Plummer wasn’t in the pool with her swim team, the Anderson Aqua Gators. Instead, Katlyn almost went swimming in the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos. Katlyn was taking an elephant ride when her elephant, Mae Khamphan, veered out of the line of elephants in front of her and began swimming in deeper waters. The elephant “driver” seated behind her shouted, “No Mae Khamphan, no swimming!” and Mae got back in line.

Katlyn was one of four young Shasta County residents participating in the Study Abroad in Laos (SAIL) program. Redding’s McConnell Foundation sponsored Katlyn as well as Ana Sammel, Charity Chin and Devin Lee this year, and six others last year. 

 SAIL is not about exotic elephants, but engaging in a culture that is vastly different. Students released tiny songbirds out of their wooden cages at the top of Mt. Phousi to better receive health and happiness, visited temples of serene beauty like Wat Sisaket and enjoyed the lively night market in Vientiane, which offers just about anything one could want to buy, including eggs roasted on a stick. And yet it is a culture that is very familiar to some SAILers.  About 3,000 people of Laotian origin live the North State.

It is because of the large Laotian population that the McConnell Foundation began working in the small landlocked Southeast Asian country in 2006. They began by helping the Lao People’s Democratic Republic with their public access to justice program, and more recently worked with three communities on an integrated water management program. McConnell’s “feet on the ground” is their director of international programs, Jesica Rhone, who travels frequently to Laos and Nepal.

“We would often be asked by Redding-area citizens how they could contribute or be involved with our philanthropy in Laos, but we didn’t have any mechanism available, which seemed like a lost opportunity,” Rhone says. “With the SAIL program, our local youth can benefit from our connections in that country and they bring their experiences home to share with friends and family, so it creates a feeling of connectedness with that distant and fairly unknown country.”

Rhone reached out to San Francisco’s Center for Lao Studies, which has operated the SAIL program since 2009. Based in the capitol city of Vientiane, the five-week school includes intensive Lao language studies, three hours per day, five days a week, as well as classes in the history and culture of Laos. Students also help select excursions outside of Vientiane, such as the trip to Luang Prabang. This visit impressed all of the young visitors not just with the elephants, but by being able to connect with the locals. The Hmong children selling bracelets stole their hearts. Charity Chin made a big hit with the kids when she took photos using Snapchat filters. When they left, the children ran after them, waving goodbye. 

The McConnell Foundation is interested in “heritage” students, young people of Laotian descent, but it also encourages those who want to learn more about Laos. Eighteen-year-old Chin grew up in a traditional Mien family. Both of her paternal grandparents are shamans, who treat the sick. Twenty-year-old Lee, also of Mien heritage, traveled abroad for the first time and was concerned how he would fare in Laos. He discovered that he was immediately part of the SAIL family of six young people, including two from outside the North State. Lee says, “I felt like I could genuinely be myself not only because of the people they were, but because we were living the same experience. 

During the experience, Rhone physically checks in with the McConnell Foundation students to make sure all is well. This is far from home. And that is part of the experience. “Our students have fairly limited opportunity for international education, and we hope this summer abroad lends itself to building resilience, global awareness and maturity that will continue to be valuable life skills,” says Rhone.

Sabrina Saechao, one of the SAILers sponsored by The McConnell Foundation last year, came home with a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of the human family. “I am so thankful for the opportunity to learn a new language, visit the most beautiful temples in the world and understand the life of fellow countrymen,” Saechao says. “My experience in Laos has taught me that communication is the key of new beginnings. Without knowledge, you won’t get far. You will never know what’s out there until you take the chance to be brave and explore.”

The McConnell Foundation will begin accepting applications for the 2018 SAIL program in February.