Next Step Connections alumni Katie Creglow’s experience with The Mirror Foundation in Thailand

Next Step Connections strives to assist students in embarking on their chosen career paths by facilitating connections to internship opportunities and immersive experiences across the Asia Pacific (APAC) region. These hands-on learning opportunities serve as crucial stepping stones, fostering the development of students’ skills and enhancing their employability to help them achieve their full potential.

By offering both virtual and in-person placements, Next Step Connections enables students to venture beyond their comfort zones, fostering exponential growth. Having assisted more than 5,000 students since 2008, Next Step Connections remains dedicated to collaborating with academic partners and employers to inspire and empower the next generation.

One of those students is Katie Creglow. Katie is a student who has grown up in Alaska in the US and studies international relations at Utah State. As a part of her academic journey, she completed an internship with one of Next Step Connections partners, The Mirror Foundation, at their branch in Bangkok from August to November 2023.

The Mirror Foundation is a non-profit organization that was established in Thailand in 1999, focusing on addressing social issues such as human trafficking, drug addiction and homelessness.

In an interview with the content team at Next Step Connections, Katie shared insights into her experience over the three-month duration of her internship as an innovation intern. The projects entailed setting up an event to give homeless people the opportunity to get a job, assisting in the setup of an advocacy center in Bangkok and helping children in Chiang Rai who are illegally deported.

Source: Katie Creglow

Cultural exchange and the work environment

Going to Thailand as a tourist compared to living there, Katie became a part of the local neighborhood she was living in and she discovered the true values of Thai culture.

“They have a yearn to help people in need, such as redoing the sidewalk to make it wheelchair accessible,” she explained. People began to recognize her, and they were extremely friendly and helpful as and when needed. “It changed my perspective of Thai people.”

However, on the other hand, one of the challenges of living and working in a local Thai community was communication. The majority of the people she interacted with were Thai speakers, naturally creating a big language barrier. This made it difficult for Katie to share her ideas and advocate for new ones, especially as the work she was doing centered around complex political issues of homelessness, illegal deportation of children and human rights.

“It was hard to accept that to a certain point, I wasn’t going to be able to get all of my ideas across,” and she also had to tread carefully because you cannot criticize the Thai government, which is of course, different from the US.

However, Katie found ways to overcome this by connecting with those around her and using tools such as Google Translate.

There were four other interns in Katie’s cohort, who were Thai university students, “they really helped me with translating and we managed to get things done as a team to manage our projects.” Google Translate was an asset that aided Katie in being able to share her perspective without having to diminish her ideas. “While communication was difficult to begin with, myself and the other interns worked really well together, and we all became good friends.”

In a professional context, by Western standards, people work relentlessly regardless of their mental health. However, in Thailand, they focus on the well-being of their employees, which was an initial surprise to Katie. One way this is demonstrated is that time constraints aren’t as strict.

Katie also experienced a culture shock because the hierarchy system works differently due to the respect you pay to your elders in any context in Asia which impacts the work environment. “You must respect your elders; it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong, you do not argue or question what they say.” This led to a push and pull effect which she found difficult to navigate because whilst you must ensure your work is getting done, someone older may be telling you to do it a certain way. Although this was the premise when Katie initially began her internship, it didn’t affect her projects or their outcomes as much as she thought they would.

Source: Katie Creglow

Project highlight

Of the three projects that Katie worked on, the homeless project was her favorite. Amidst the skyscrapers and bustle of Bangkok, The Mirror Foundation gave homeless people the opportunity to interview for a job to get them off the streets.

They set up an area for them to wash, get a haircut, and choose new clothes before going in for a job interview. “Watching these people walk in, they look homeless, you can’t deny it, dirty, backpack on, but leaving they had a fresh haircut, a business suit on – they just looked like a different person.”

There were many impactful moments throughout this project, but for Katie to see them be able to choose what to wear, she realized that this is a daily task that we take for granted, but for them, this was really special. “It was meaningful to us, but also meaningful to them to have people care about them. That’s something they don’t get often.”

Additionally, the only way to inform them of the event was word of mouth, so Katie and her colleagues had to go around the night before and inform the homeless people of the details. However, this was easier said than done. There is a homeless gang leader who tells them not to attend, saying “trust me, don’t go to that event.” So a lot of the homeless people told The Mirror Foundation they couldn’t attend because if they did, it’s likely they would get hurt.

“We were dealing with a very multi-dimensional situation. We’re dealing with homeless people that want help, homeless people that are manipulated, and then a gang leader who is in charge. It was really sad because we were trying to help but, at the same time, it was dangerous for them to come.This was a really tough situation for me to understand because all of this was happening in Thai! But I feel really lucky to have been able to be a part of that.”

Professional and personal growth

Throughout Katie’s internship, she was able to grow both professionally and make progress of her own, which she reflected on during the interview.

Working in a non-governmental organization and seeing the processes and management has prepared her well for the field she wants to go into. While university work entails lots of research on international laws and policies, applying her knowledge, specifically with the project involving the illegal deportation of children, was a very valuable part of her experience with The Mirror Foundation.

“At university they tell us about all of these big organizations. I learned that I like working on more of a community level, as I can still make an impact which is something I had little knowledge of prior to this experience. There are more opportunities to connect with the community on a local level. It makes you think, how often do the UN put one of these events on? Being able to connect with people and help them is something that I want to do.”

Having hands-on experience is invaluable for Katie; meeting new people, learning about the world, and finding out what’s out there was opportunity enough. “Even if I don’t specifically work with them in the future, just learning about all the possibilities that I can was amazing.”

This experience through Next Step Connections has helped Katie grow exponentially.

“The big one for me was independence, I had never really lived alone generally before, and then alone in a big city, and then alone in a big city in a foreign country! To be able to be comfortable with myself, and spending time with myself, and traveling alone too, I traveled outside of Bangkok a few times and had the confidence and independence to be able to do that.”

The experience also helped her reflect on what’s most important – whether it is all these material things or is it family and friends, and the latter is inevitably what is most valuable. Furthermore, Katie gained a lot of appreciation for the diversity of people out there and also our similarities as human beings, especially after spending a lot of time with homeless people.

When asked about what advice Katie would offer those embarking on a similar experience: “Be ok with being uncomfortable, because the whole time is filled with that – not being able to understand Thai, being the only Westerner, eating different food (that was really) spicy. Once you can reflect, those are the ones you remember the most.”

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