Monday, February 11, 2013

Student Spotlight: Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi

For this installment of the Student Spotlight series, we’ve interviewed Pongkwan Sawadipakdi, a first-year M.A. student concentrating in Southeast Asia Studies.  In 2011 she received her B.A in international relations from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, and prior to coming to SAIS she worked as a journalist.  Pongkwan, a Thai citizen, is a recipient of the Royal Thai Government Scholarship.
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Prior to SAIS, you were working as a reporter in Thailand. What prompted you to study international relations?
I have always been fascinated by current international issues and historic global events. After receiving my B.A. in international relations, I started my career as an international desk news reporter at a news station in Thailand.  For more than a year I reported on international headlines like the disastrous earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the death of Muammar Gaddafi, and the assassination of Bin Laden. I loved my job as it allowed me to explore new and interesting stories every day. However, my just knowing what happened is simply not enough for me. I want to be able to explain causes of these events, make comparisons, and draw connections between different events and issues. Therefore, when I won a scholarship from the Thai Government, I knew that the next step in my education cannot be anything but international relations.
Can you tell us about your concentration, and why you chose it?
My concentration is Southeast Asia Studies. While growing up in the region, I observed many disputes and misunderstanding among Southeast Asian countries. Southeast Asia is unique in a way that it is so diverse in terms of ethnicity, languages, cultures, and religions. Politically, Southeast Asia is comprised of some of the most unique political systems in the world ranging from Singapore’s partial democracy, Myanmar’s military-controlled-civilian government, to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.
Ironically, there is limited number of experts on Southeast Asia in Thailand. I feel that Southeast Asia Studies will improve my understanding of both my country and neighboring countries. This, I hope, can help prevent future conflicts.
What is the Royal Thai Government Scholarship? How will this scholarship impact your professional career?
The Royal Thai Government Scholarship is an education scholarship sponsored by the Thai Government. Each year, thousands of applicants compete to win an opportunity to study abroad. A handful of applicants will be selected based on written and oral exams. Of course, there is nothing such as a free thing in the world. These scholarship recipients must be committed to go back and work for the government. The service requirement is twice the number of years spent studying abroad. After graduation, I will return to Thailand to be a lecturer at a public university. There is a high possibility that I would like to pursue a PhD. However, my ultimate goal is to join a political or policy-making career.
What are some of the courses you’ve taken and specific skills you’ve learned that will help you in your career?
I have taken a number of Southeast Asian courses and international economic courses. My favorite so far is International Relations of Asia: Policy Process. In the class I learned to design U.S. foreign policy towards Myanmar. I could not imagine where else I could learn this practical policy-making skill. In addition, the economic classes are very useful for international relations analysis and my academic career.
What advice would you give to applicants coming from Thailand, or from other countries in Southeast Asia?
I do not think I have any special advice for other applicants from Thailand or Southeast Asia. SAIS is already a well-known graduate institution in the region. But if you do have a number of offers and are deciding where you should attend, SAIS should be top on your list. SAIS is known for its rigorous academics and is also located in a very advantageous location. Living and studying in Washington D.C. will give you an absolutely worthwhile experience with a little flavor of American politics. Within six month of living here, I have experienced the presidential election, the inauguration, and even Hurricane Sandy. The weekly free luncheons with the Southeast Asia Department is definitely a plus too!
Thanks for reading!
— Erin Skelly Cameron, Associate Director of Admissions
To read previous entries in our Student Spotlight series, please click here.