Graduate students gain cross-cultural experience

The city of Bangkok, Thailand has received a lot of media attention recently because of the extreme flooding that has killed hundreds and injured thousands. But there is another, more insidious danger flooding the streets of the crowded metropolis. Human trafficking and prostitution are rampant and deeply-rooted problems in Bangkok, and the anti-trafficking organization NightLife International is daily fighting for human rights in the heart of the city.

This summer, five Eastern University graduate students and two professors traveled to Bangkok to interact with the culture and construct a prayer garden in NightLight’s newly acquired ministry center in the city’s red light district. The trip was part of a service learning course required for the Arts in Transformation track of the M.A. in Urban Studies. The course is designed to provide “the opportunity to design and implement an arts-based service project cross-culturally,” Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt, who helped lead the trip, said.

From June 15-26, students Julia Crawford, Jamaine Smith, Bethany Reiff, Finene Szczepanski and Dominique Padgett were able to experience cultural immersion in Thailand and explore the ways in which culture and art interact. They communicated with the NightLife staff to determine the design of the prayer garden, including a mural and garden stations. The project was centered around the themes of Innocence, Desperation, Decision, Mourning/Rebirth and Hope/Healing. Through the creation of this garden the students were able to “gain first hand knowledge of the local cultural urban world-view, explore models of arts-based mission and service among the poor and the relationship between culture, art and transformation,” Corbitt said.

The trip had a profound effect on all involved.

“One of the most foreign and hellish places I had ever [been] has now become a realm of influence for me,” student Bethany Reiff said. “No longer will I be able to just think abstractly about the sex industry and prostitution. It will always have faces and names for me now, which will affect me for the rest of my life.”

Dr. Corbitt is currently planning a similar trip to the Republic of Congo in November, where Julia Crawford and others will be working with victims of what is called the “rape cult” rebel group. Trip members will have the chance to work with victims of sexual violence and help guide training for local social workers. The trip will be undertaken in partnership with BuildaBridge International, a nonprofit arts education and intervention organization founded by Dr. Corbitt and Dr. Nix-Early. Build-a-Bridge is a community partner of Eastern University in the M.A. in Urban Studies Program and was also one of the collaborators on the summer trip to Thailand. For more information on this organization, visit


Photos provided by Dr. Nathan Corbitt

Top: (from left to right) Graduate students Julia Crawford, Dominique Padgett, Ginene Szczepanski, Bethany Reiff and Jamaine Smith worked

with Build-a-Bridge to stop human trafficking in Thailand.

Right: Student Julia Crawford cuddles up with a live elephant

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