Old school ties
Social and professional opportunities abound for
students returning from overseas
It's a typically humid Saturday in Bangkok. The kind of day when thoughts turn to lolling around in front of a fan or, at most, sauntering through one of the city's ice-blasted shopping malls. At one little clubhouse on New Petchburi Road, however, a couple of dozen otherwise sane looking individuals are itching to get out onto the tennis court and work up an unearthly afternoon sweat. These are members of the Old England Student's Association (Oesa), and they take fun seriously.
Indeed, the mantelpiece in Oesa's function room - a mock English tavern with lustrous teak bar and university crests hanging from wood-panelled walls - creaks with trophies. These have been won at tennis, golf and bowling competitions played out between Bangkok's "Big Four" associations for people who have studied overseas: Oesa; the Old Japan Students' Association, Thailand (OJSAT); the American University Alumni Association (AUAA) and the wonderfully named Association of Old Continental Europe Students (AOCES).
"They all say we're the best," says the irrepressible Oesa president, Dr Parichart Jumsai na Ayudhya, as we sip cold drinks and watch the on-court action. "And that's because we're the only one run by women!" Dr Parichart was schooled at Heathfield, near Windsor, before reading French and German at Newcastle. She went on to further study in Paris, before returning to Thailand, where she became secretary to former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, himself a Cambridge graduate and honorary Oesa advisor.
Since first registering as an official association in 1934, Oesa has grown into arguably the largest and most prominent overseas alumni group operating in Bangkok. This despite a chequered history that has seen upheavals due to national revolutions, financial difficulties and world wars. Open to anyone who has studied in England, or been invited to join by an existing member, Oesa membership currently hovers around an impressive 5,000.
Dr Parichart - "Parry" to her friends - has a formidable presence at Oesa. As we walk about the clubhouse grounds, members call out, forcing drinks into her hand and pulling up chairs. She can barely sit still long enough for more than brief exchanges of jokes and pleasantries: there's work to be done. (Although she does find time to railroad the tennis-watching gentleman treasurer of OJSAT into telling me how wonderful Oesa's women are.)
The clubhouse is buzzing with preparations for Ascot Day, a racing themed mid-September gala dinner being organised to celebrate Oesa's auspicious seventy-second anniversary. HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is expected to attend, and the programme will include a production of My Fair Lady starring the British Council's Thailand director, Peter Upton, as Professor Henry Higgins. Parry's powers of persuasion appear to be in fine fettle.
Widening the net
The good relations enjoyed between the British Council (BC) and Oesa goes beyond the sharing of acting talent. The BC rents classrooms in Oesa's clubhouse for teaching purposes and the two groups work together to serve as a focal point for Thais who have studied in the UK.
Membership of the BC's own Thai-UK Alumni and Professional Network (TUKAPN) has swollen to more than 3,000 in the six years it has been in operation, says Jansang Boonnua, the BC's networks and scholarships manager.
"Our aim is really to strengthen friendships and create opportunities for people who have studied or worked in the UK," Jansang tells me at the BC's plush Siam Square offices. "We regularly have guest speakers come over from the UK to give professional development talks on subjects [related] to the special interests of our members."
In addition to seminars and presentations, the Network offers its members access to events like jewellery workshops and resources like the E-library, a huge collection of journals and articles drawn from nearly 20 databases.
As with all alumni associations, one of the main attractions of TUKAPN is the opportunity to network and develop relationships with other professionals. Indeed, the highlight of the year for members is a reunion party, held during the BC's annual education festival, when members can get together to meet new faces, swap stories and exchange those oh-so-important business cards.
In stark contrast to the BC's state of the art Siam Square headquarters, the AOCES is based in a leafy compound, just off the embassy-laden thoroughfare of South Sathorn Road.
The complex is dominated by two large, traditional wooden houses, which not only serve as home to AOCES, but also several German organisations such as the Goethe Institute and the Thai-Deutsche Kulturstiftung (the Thai-German Cultural Foundation, or TDKS).
Assistant Prof Ruthairat Ratanopas, AOCES treasurer, says the association has members who have studied everywhere in Europe, from Portugal and Spain to Germany and the Netherlands.
"Many of our members are also members of other associations," she says. "Most countries have their own alumni groups, but we offer an opportunity for everybody to come together." A regal legacy
Though AOCES membership is relatively modest - they number less than a thousand - it used to be the norm for upper class Thai students to head to the big cities of Europe. But in the early part of the twentieth century, with the First World War in full swing, the universities of London, Paris and Berlin were decidedly off limits.
Consequently, America's halls of learning took the reigns. Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, son of King Chulalongkorn, headed to the US to study Public Health at Harvard and, soon after, a small group of well-to-do Thais followed, including Sangwal Talabhat, the Prince's future wife.
Far from their own country, this group of pioneer scholars formed a social-cum-support group for Thai students, known as the Thai Alliance, in 1920. Upon graduation and return to Thailand several years later, group members got together and formed the AUAA.
From its inception in 1924 until the early fifties, AUAA existed almost exclusively as a social and charitable association, explains Adul Pinsuvana, director general of the AUAA. Its balls and gala dinners were eagerly anticipated and would attract Bangkok's most prominent socialites.
When the Prince died in 1929, the AUAA established the Mahidol Adulyadej medical scholarship fund in his honour. The scheme is still in operation, providing 12 awards each year.
Now, however, the AUAA is probably better known for something other than its alumni association. "Most Thai people are surprised we still exist," Adul says. "They only seem to know our language school."
In 1952, the Thai government decided its citizens needed to increase their awareness of English and started looking at ways to establish language schools. The US embassy stepped in and offered to provide money, resources, teachers and administrative personnel. As Adul, who graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology says: "How could you refuse?"
It was decided that the language centre should operate as part of AUAA, with directors - usually US Foreign Service staff - appointed directly from the States. This arrangement continued until the mid nineties, when the US government revised their budget, and stopped sending over their own staff. Adul, who had been involved with the association since 1966, became the joint body's first Thai director. With more than 2,000 members the AUAA is in no danger of disappearing, although Adul does recognise that times have changed.
"It's difficult to find young people who are interested in the old days, and associations like ours, traditional associations. But we have some bright young people, and we will continue to thrive, I'm sure."
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Last modified: August 21, 2006