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Dear Mekong Semester Students:

As your Course Director and one of three instructors this coming Fall, I am pleased to welcome you to Where There Be Dragons. Over the years, Where There Be Dragons has developed semester programs that transcend national borders and cultural boundaries, focusing on human and ecological links rather than political barriers. The Mekong Semester is perhaps a hallmark of this paradigm – a dynamic, memorable, and intimate cultural experience along one of the world’s great waterways. Like the river itself, we will be passing through a vast world of people and places, from barren mountainscapes to lush tropical valleys. We will be stopping in the cultural eddies along the way, experiencing the rhythm of daily life while studying contemporary economic and ecological pressures that continue to shape these communities. Embracing the Dragons philosophy, we will immerse ourselves deeply, swimming in the current of life rather than wading through.

Before introducing myself, I would like to give you a preview of your instructor team. As you might imagine, bringing together three people to instruct a program that spans three countries, five major language families (Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, Lao, and Khmer, not to mention various regional dialects and minority languages), and multiple manifestations of Buddhism (and other spiritual traditions) takes more than just a little thought. The result of our efforts is a dynamic trio of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual diversity. As a team, we have common experiences as well as our own specialties. And despite our advertised areas of expertise, you will likely be surprised by our side passions and interests. While I will allow Jess Miller and Justin Kiersky to elaborate on themselves, I would like to mention a few key points: Jess Miller has been living in Cambodia for several years and brings us an experiential knowledge of community-directed development projects as well as command of the Khmer language. Justin Kiersky has been living in Yunnan, China off and on for many years, and now uses Yunnan as his home base. He has an intimate knowledge of the province’s diverse geography and ethnicity, and speaks Chinese (Mandarin). Again, I will allow Jess and Justin to share more about their passions in their own letters, but I am quite excited to be working with these two amazing individuals.

My contribution to this semester program will come from several angles. First, I have been working with Where There Be Dragons for eight years in Laos, Tibet, China, and India. From the very beginning, I had dreamt of instructing a semester along the Mekong River. When we began work on the Mekong Semester, I was thrilled. I like to think that I have been waiting for my life circumstances to ripen in such a way that I could join this semester. Now, after three years of graduate school in psychology, I have the time and privilege to instruct my dream semester program

I began my journeys in Southeast Asia as a yearlong exchange student in Thailand, and have lived in Thailand for a total of three years. On top of that, I have spent nearly a year in Laos and Burma researching the impact of infrastructure development on local human and ecological communities. As a student myself, I studied Chinese in Yunnan and on one of my return trips traced the Mekong River from its headwaters in Tibetan Kham into Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) in southern Yunnan. Needless to say, I am excited to retrace these steps and observe the changes that a few short years of development have endowed.

Finally, rivers are my passion. During summers in my home of Colorado, I earn part of my keep as a river guide, acting as an interpreter of natural and cultural history and an advocate for sustainable river use in the desert west. Riverway management has a direct impact on my own way of life and livelihood. The exchange between private landowners, government entities, and corporate interests affects my ability to earn a living, and affects the quality of the rivers I work on. There are parallels to my own life in the United States and the lives of those in China, Laos, and Cambodia whose lives are tied to the mother river of Southeast Asia. For me, understanding the dynamics of “natural resource” management takes a personal tone, a tone that will undoubtedly influence my own teachings and learnings during our semester together.

While it is important for you to get to know us instructors, it is just as – if not more – important for us to hear your voices and see your goals for the program. We hold a structure for the program (itinerary, contacts, course flow, and local knowledge for example), but you hold the power to experience, learn, and ultimately direct your learning. Over my years of working with students, I have learned that the most powerful programs have participants who are invested in their own growth and learning, and instructors who embrace the unique contributions of each participant. Ultimately, we are all learning together.

So we would like to hear from you – not just a background on what has brought you to this point in life, but how you envision your work on this program. What is your level of interest in the theme of comparative religion along the Mekong River? What are your humanitarian concerns? Ecological? Why does the Mekong Semester speak to you? As I mentioned above, this semester is like no other. How will you make these three months like no other you have experienced?

While we will have many words of wisdom to maximize our learning, ensure safety, and maintain a cohesive group of students and instructors, my only bit of “advice” for right now is this: Imagine what it will be like to depart from a comparatively settled life and enter an itinerant adventure of the body and mind through some of Southeast Asia’s most remote inner landscapes.

In parting, I give you the words of Robert Service, who invites us into this sort of experience.

Have you gazed on naked grandeur
where there’s nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley
with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence?
Then for God’s sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.

We look forward to learning about you all.

Until then,

Max

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Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

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Unto a River, Welcome

Max Woodfin,Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

Description

Dear Mekong Semester Students: As your Course Director and one of three instructors this coming Fall, I am pleased to welcome you to Where There Be Dragons. Over the years, Where There Be Dragons has developed semester programs that transcend national borders and cultural boundaries, focusing on human and ecological links rather than political barriers. […]

Posted On

08/3/11

Author

Max Woodfin

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I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.

-Confucius

Jum riep sua, teang awh! Sok sabay tee? Greetings, everyone! How are you? I send you my very warmest greetings from Kampot, Cambodia, where I’m currently co-instructing the Cambodia Summer Youth Dragon’s Program. It’s been an incredible learning experience thus far, and I feel privileged (and really excited!) to be returning as an instructor on the Mekong Semester this fall... to get to know each one of you, and to learn about the dreams, passions, fears, and life experiences that are you: unique adventurers setting out to explore the world. And I know that you have just as much to teach me as I hope to teach you.

The Mekong River is an essential part of the landscape in Southeast Asia, beautiful, mysterious, and ever changing. The Mekong Semester Program offers a glimpse of life through a different lens, a glimpse at life that functions with fewer resources and fewer conveniences, with fewer rights, more susceptible to devastating effects of climate change, more at risk of losing pristine natural resources to large-scale development. During the fall semester, we will travel through three fascinating countries made up of beautiful and ancient terrain, on a journey that promises to be challenging, heartwarming, and heartbreaking at the same time. But this is no ordinary journey. You have chosen to embark on a Dragons journey, and in doing so, have shown your interest and commitment to creating your experience. You’ll be challenged to design a course and create experiences that fulfill the expectations, goals, and desires that you have been dreaming about over the past few months. What do you want to learn about? What are your personal goals and expectations for these 3 months, and how will you attain them? We want to place the reins in your hands, all the while giving you the support, guidance, and skills you need to design a safe, challenging, and rewarding course.

I’d like to share with you a bit about my background, and a bit about how I came travel in Southeast Asia and to live in Cambodia. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, am 30 years old, the oldest of three sisters, and have a large, supportive extended family that I adore. I have always been a very hands-on learner, growing the most when I am experiencing, doing, building, creating - getting my hands dirty. I had my first taste of international travel at 16, on a trip organized by my high school to Western Europe. I had never been more excited in all my life. Not very exotic or unknown... but we all start somewhere, right? I don’t think stopped dreaming for one minute on that first flight across the Atlantic Ocean... of what was to come, and how I hoped I’d grow as a result of the new experiences that lay ahead. For the past 15 years, I’ve continued to travel extensively, pushing myself to more remote and challenging situations– backcountry snowboarding with Outward Bound, cod-jigging in Newfoundland, hiking the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and doing my best to live a silent, monastic life during retreats in India and Cambodia.

Following graduation from Lehigh University, where I majored in Material Science Engineering, I worked as a site engineer for a construction company on large infrastructure projects in New York City, and went on to graduate school, studying project management. I loved what I did, but I felt there was something more that I was meant to do, to learn, to experience. I wanted to go further and explore more. The world of NYC, which at one time felt limitless, began to feel small and fixed – predictable, even.

I started volunteering with Engineers without Borders (EWB), a community of volunteer engineers, architects, and non-engineering professionals who work with local NGO partners in developing countries to find engineering solutions to community problems. In 2008, I traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia with the NY Chapter of EWB to work on the redesign of a community reservoir. I’ll never forget driving through the rural, bumpy and dusty roads of Balang Commune to get to the project site. Seeing rows of wooden houses on stilts, coconut trees stretching into the hazy distance, cows ambling along the road chewing on tufts of grass, chickens racing alongside our pickup truck, children calling to us, waving with bright smiles – I was speechless. I was so moved by my experience in Cambodia that, in late 2009, I returned with friends to launch a social enterprise in Phnom Penh, an engineering and project management firm with an Educational Outreach program. I also became extremely interested in learning about the effects of hydropower dams on communities, and the politics of water management across international boundaries. This will be a big focus of our semester course – we’ll have a chance to see the effects of these large projects up close, and to compare and contrast the impacts on communities as we follow the river south from Yunnan, China, to Cambodia.

Developing language skills in a foreign place, even if it is just basic greetings, conversations and numbers, makes the experience so much more fulfilling, enriching and successful – it enables you to participate in local life. During the nearly 2 years I’ve spent in Southeast Asia, most of my time has been spent in Cambodia, and so it’s here that my language skills are the strongest. As we travel, I’m excited to study and learn Mandarin & to improve on the Lao that I know, alongside each of you. In addition to focusing on language study and the environmental & social effects of development, the Mekong course will focus on effects of tourism, agriculture & trade, human rights violations, and the complex history of conflict in the region.

As we travel, I’m confident that we’ll experience the freedom of letting go of rigid notions about what the “right” path is through life – we owe it to ourselves to define our own path, first understanding who we are and what makes us come alive, and second, seeking out ways in which we can bring that into practice in the world. It is a lifelong quest, with many twists and turns. The only thing that this quest requires of us: that we allow the doors in our hearts and minds to open, letting in the unknown, the uncomfortable, the distressing, the joyous, the ugly, and the beautiful, embracing each with equal amounts of compassion. Our journey along the Mekong will ask us to do this – and I ask you to be prepared to do so – I promise to do the same, and will be there along the way, whenever you should need a hand or an ear to listen.

Over the next six weeks, as you are enjoying your summer vacation, start to prepare by reading books, blogs, and news articles. Clarify, for yourself, what your goals and expectations are for this trip, and how you’d like to realize them. We are going to China, Laos and Cambodia to learn from and about the people, but we must not forget that they too will be interested in learning about us. How will you describe your life experiences and beliefs to someone, in a gracious and humble way? Spend a few minutes each day in quiet reflection, being aware of the state of your mind and body as you get ready to depart. Self-reflection and mindfulness will be a big part of our experience this fall, as a group and as individuals, and we’ll explore these through studies of the different religious beliefs, customs, and traditions along the Mekong River.

As fellow adventurers, we share a spirit that has existed since the beginning of time. A spirit of seeking, and exploration. A spirit of curiosity and of wonder. A spirit willing to push its limits of comfort in an effort to grow. A spirit that desires to keep learning! A spirit that is nourished by taking a deep breath of the strange scents that a foreign breeze blows, by listening to the beautiful chanting of monks or the cacophony of roosters crowing through the jungle at dawn, or by conversing with a new friend in a strange new language. On our journey along the Mekong, with each breath we take to truly feed that adventurous spirit, both as a group and as individuals, we will feel more alive, invigorated, inspired and enlightened. Breathe in deeply now – I can feel it already! Can you?

Soum lia haey!

Jess Miller

Jessmiller64@gmail.com


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Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

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Jum riep sua, teang awh!

Jess Miller,Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

Description

I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand. -Confucius Jum riep sua, teang awh! Sok sabay tee? Greetings, everyone! How are you? I send you my very warmest greetings from Kampot, Cambodia, where I’m currently co-instructing the Cambodia Summer Youth Dragon’s Program. It’s been an incredible learning experience […]

Posted On

08/1/11

Author

Jess Miller

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Hello Y'all!

I was trying really hard to refrain from being the first to post an intro on the Yak Yak board but I am way to excited for our upcoming adventure to hold off any longer!

My name is Grace Cullinan and I am from Winston Salem, NC. However, despite a few interspersed "y'all"s in my vocabulary, I have no southern accent. This could be the product of me spending my high school years in Concord, NH at St. Paul's School, but I think it is just because it never caught on for me. Currently I am suffering at the hands of Colorado altitude if only to escape the blistering heat of the South. Trust me, there is nothing like a 98 degree day in North Carolina with 60% humidity, where walking from the front door to your car makes you sweat, that makes you wish that you were anywhere but there. So some brief things about me; I like to run, hike, and swim; I did have a fear of heights until I went bungee jumping and did a gorge swing and did a backflip off of a 30 foot bridge (during which I over-rotated and now have a severely bruised behind, much to my chagrin and the amusement of my friends). And no, that is not to say that if someone jumped off a bridge I would immediately follow suit. My favorite meal would have to be an appetizer of French Onion soup, an entree consisting of a steak cooked medium, and chocolate cream pie for dessert. Did I mention that I love love love a good steak? Now, most people associate the name Grace with someone who must be graceful right? Wrong. I have to be the most ungraceful Grace ever, and the irony is overwhelming. I love to talk, so I could of course post more and more annoying lists for you all to read with answers to questions that no one asked, but I will wait until I see you to tell you the rest of my life story, like the fact that my favorite color is lime green.

Oh, and the picture is of beautiful Mt. Crested Butte in Colorado.

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Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

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Introduction and First Yak Yak Post

Grace Cullinan,Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

Description

Hello Y’all! I was trying really hard to refrain from being the first to post an intro on the Yak Yak board but I am way to excited for our upcoming adventure to hold off any longer! My name is Grace Cullinan and I am from Winston Salem, NC. However, despite a few interspersed "y’all"s […]

Posted On

07/26/11

Author

Grace Cullinan

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Greetings Dragons!

Firstly, I would like to welcome students, parents, instructors, and friends to the 2011 Fall Semester Yak Yak board. This is a momentous time of year for us, charged with anticipation and preparation for another autumn season. We hope that the Yak Yak forum encourages you to voice your excitement, anxieties, thoughts and questions--it’s a great place to share a bit about yourself. Shortly, instructors will post their own introductions and begin providing information about the journey ahead. From here, discussions will begin to build and your instructors will offer advice for course preparation regarding packing, recommended readings, the itinerary, and topics to consider for your Independent Study Projects (ISPs). As your Program Director, I’m going to be working closely with you as well, although mostly to support the program and the instructors and be a contact for parents while the group is out in the field.

My own international journey began as a 6 yr-old when I lived abroad with my family in the Turks & Caicos Islands, and later Haiti. Since, I’ve been instilled with a sense of wanderlust that has yet to wane, whether it be a desire to travel to distant locales or simply seek adventures in my own backyard. I came to Dragons in 2009 as an instructor on the Cambodia course, having spent the previous four years in Japan and Southeast Asia. I later had the opportunity to instruct and help develop our Life Along the Mekong semester program and I now find myself happily ensconced in our home office in Boulder, supporting students, instructors, and courses as I can. I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of such a brilliant and inspiring group of seekers and I am happy to welcome all of you to the Dragons community.

So, as we begin to pack our bags for the upcoming adventure, keep in mind that you are now an intricate part of a much greater process; one that contains stories of past students and their feedback, of instructors who have brought their contacts, knowledge and passion, and the dedicated individuals working in country to facilitate a powerful cross-cultural experience. Lastly, but certainly not least, are your parents, who generously send you off in to the world to find your own path. Much has already gone in to the experience you will help create this fall--your energy and presence will greatly influence the experience of future Dragons participants.

Dragons prefers to keep our hands in the dirt, allowing us to sculpt courses that represent our goals of profound cross-cultural learning and self-cultivation. When you finally gather in September at your course’s point of departure, you should know that you are embarking on an adventure that is intensely personalized and has been many months, and in many cases, years in the making!

Of course, the launching of the Yak Yak forum also encourages YOU to become a participant in the process. We want you to share with us and your fellow students your intentions for joining a program like ours. As you dig through your guidebooks and crack open a few of our suggested pre-course readings, we’d really like to hear what catches your attention. You are welcome to throw out contributions to the itinerary – whether there’s a particular monastery that piques your interest, a non-governmental organization that you would like to visit, or a trekking route that passes through beautiful terrain. Although our instructors have already defined most components of the course, we’d like to work to incorporate your ideas when and where possible. So join in, shout out, and partake in this forum!

The Yak board is the most appropriate place to address your pre-course questions and concerns. We hope that you will discover the magic of the Yak Yak forum, and learn to love it! It’s a powerful tool for communication and community building, and once you head into the field, it will undoubtedly become the default homepage of your parents and friends at home – all of those who WISH they could be out there with you!

Again, welcome to Dragons. I look forward to hearing from you all, and vicariously journeying alongside you this autumn.

Best Regards,

Michael Woodard

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Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

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A Warm Welcome from the Program Director

Michael Woodard,Mekong Semester, Fall 2011

Description

Greetings Dragons! Firstly, I would like to welcome students, parents, instructors, and friends to the 2011 Fall Semester Yak Yak board. This is a momentous time of year for us, charged with anticipation and preparation for another autumn season. We hope that the Yak Yak forum encourages you to voice your excitement, anxieties, thoughts and […]

Posted On

07/7/11

Author

Michael Woodard