This round, our spotlight beams down on one of our very own undergraduate foreign language and area studies (FLAS) recipients, sophomore Adrian Beyer, studying Thai. While the FLAS scholarship is often associated with MA and PhD students, we were delighted to interview Adrian about his experiences during a COVID semester as an underclassman. A Women’s and Gender Studies/Asian Studies double major, he’s also been happy to demystify the application process for prospective undergrad FLAS applicants and break down how the grant has helped him pursue his goals.
“Why Thai studies?” you may ask. For Adrian, this choice started as something circumstantial that blossomed into academic interest. Thanks to his participation at the Rotary Club in his hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, he got the opportunity to take a gap year in Northeast Thailand shortly before attending U-M. “I wanted to go to an Asian country, but not all countries accepted exchange students aged 18 and over,” he says. In Mahasarakham, Thailand, he spent a year learning Thai, studying with Thai students, and being immersed in a region famed for its mountainous Isan cuisine.
Landing in Ann Arbor for freshman year, just eight months before the great lockdown of March 2020, he tested into Advanced Thai but didn’t have a schedule that let him sign up. It was at that point that Thai Professor Aimkanon Bunmee recommended he apply for the FLAS for the coming academic year. Adrian describes it as a “4-day application,” one that, to his delight, would allow him to continue his language studies. “I totally never thought I’d be taking Thai in college,” Beyer says. He feels that U-M’s CSEAS proved a welcome environment for him to keep pursuing his intersectional academic track. Very few schools, he found, taught Thai on any level.
It might be just those intersections that have forged his academic career as well. Straddling the line between gender studies and area studies, he’s chosen a less traditional path than the pure disciplinary tracks many are more familiar with. For him, these intersections of gender, queerness, Thai studies, and pop culture are what makes the degree worth studying. “WGS as a field…is interested in trying to decolonize itself,” he says. “[It recognizes a] need to get away from a western-centric perspective and worldview…There’s this push to say, ‘We need to do it!’ but may not come into [non-western spaces] with an area studies expertise. They can recognize the problem but may not have the solution.” That, he contends, is where expertise in nations, cultures, and above all language, becomes essential. Like so many other FLAS recipients, he’s finding that language doesn’t exist in a vacuum—and neither does the theory.
The breakup of the FLAS Fellowship stipend is fairly straightforward at the undergraduate level—it’s a total of $15,000, distributed over two semesters. Around $5.000 per semester goes to tuition, another $2,250 that can go to housing (or more tuition if you’re in a COVID semester), and another $500 that’s withheld till your forms and papers are sorted at the academic year’s end. He’s been generous enough to demystify the process for intrepid applicants for the coming year.
Meanwhile, classes resume for Adrian in just a few days, as of the penning of this article. Last semester, he was in an online Advanced Thai course with one other classmate—Jennifer Rollison, an MA student, who also studies Thailand and Isan identity. It’s certainly a different dynamic, but Adrian notes with some amusement the jump from learning colloquial Thai in Thailand to formal Thai in America. “It’s really different. [Some of the] the things my Thai professor will correct me on will crack me up.” Even if he avoids the expletives he heard in Thai over his year hanging out with classmates, he’s steadily learning a more formal register that complements the day-to-day Thai he also knows. Once, his professor encouraged him to neaten his handwriting—to get past his “messy Thai teenager note-taking” phase. For Adrian, this was actually heartening news: “I was just flattered my handwriting was good enough to look like a [native Thai speaker’s] writing!” Rolling with the punches of an impossible semester, he shows no signs of slowing down: he’s reapplying for another year of Thai for his junior year.