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I almost let my stubbornness stop me from having the biggest summer of personal growth in my life. If you looked at the list of offices and organizations I applied to for internships, you would gather that I really wanted to stay in Canada. I had convinced myself that an undergrad semester spent in Brussels was sufficient international experience to have a clue about what I wanted to do with a MGA degree. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now in my seventh week, I can confirm that just about everything about Bangkok is exciting and new, often in the best ways possible. The vibrant scents of street food paired with the chaotic colours of Thrasher t-shirts and bright, cartoon-like public transit ads cause for a dizzying sensory overload at first, but are undeniably part of Bangkok’s lovable whole. Pretty quickly, you get a grasp on mental monetary conversions and learn when you are being conned (if your lunch costs more than $2 Canadian, you’re doing it wrong). Though I will never outgrow the label ‘farang’ (foreigner) and as of now have no plans to enroll in Thai language classes, I can proudly tell you to avoid the BTS public transit system at all costs between 5 and 8 pm, and know that even the heaviest of rainy season downpours will generally end within a half hour if you’re willing to wait it out.

Working for YouthLEAD, the regional network for young key populations (YKPs) vulnerable to HIV, has challenged me by constantly demanding quality deliverables while significantly expanding my understanding of the disease and its impact on people living in the Asia Pacific region. I have had the opportunity to meet a number of advocates and activists who have special connections to their work because they often identify as members of the groups we are looking to enhance health services for. It is one thing to be exposed to case studies in a pile of class readings, but quite another to hear firsthand individuals’ grievances and struggles with their local healthcare systems and the stigma attached to their identities. In these cases, all I can do in the moment is lend an ear, but in the office these conversations are always swirling in the back of my mind when I’m banging out reports and trying to set up meaningful research designs. For funding requests to work, you have to convince your donors of the importance of securing their money, and building a convincing argument can only really come out of incorporating the lived experiences of the very groups you are hoping to help.

 

YouthLEAD has not only exposed me to a whole score of public health issues I’ve never worked with before, but also to a sector of work that is far more complex and network-oriented than I ever could have imagined. Over an incredibly short period of time I’ve managed to establish a professional network much bigger than any working network I’ve ever had in Toronto or New York. Finding myself in the unique situation of being completely uprooted from my familiar social engagements and friends, my life in Bangkok has been one where I am much more invested in my professional work, and I feel like it defines me far more than any of my previous jobs ever have. I know I will leave this position more confident in my resume on paper, but also in my personal ability to take on bold new projects and to navigate professional relationships as they come in both formal and informal settings.

But the biggest piece of growth I have experienced is the ability to make any place a home and to still find yourself while wandering away from the familiarity and routines of life in Toronto. Though it has been my first entire summer spent away from the city and my first time in Asia period, I’ve managed to link up with the local lacrosse community, travel, connect more with my MGA classmates, maintain a varsity workout routine, and have even learned how to find a good burrito whenever the craving is kicking. Working and living abroad doesn’t have to be the most terrifying and life-altering experience in the world, but it’s ultimately up to you as an individual and how you choose to handle it. Time zone differences are hard when you try to maintain certain types of relationships abroad, and seeing Canada 150 Instagram posts while waiting out another rainy evening will never get easier. That being said, I’m slowly learning to appreciate the unique career growth opportunities that have blossomed for me by spending time in Bangkok, and am so thankful that I got the nudge I needed to pursue work on a new continent.

 

Author Geneva Calder

Geneva is a Master of Global Affairs candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Her interests include identity politics, human rights law, and understanding how policy can be shaped across different cultural landscapes to achieve these human rights goals. Most recently, she worked with Youth LEAD, a regional network of NGOs in Asia and the Pacific that advocates for the public health of young key populations at a higher risk of contracting HIV.

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