By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University men's soccer player Ryan Sato (Sr., M, Sunnyvale, CA/Homestead HS) spent this past summer studying abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand, along with a group of 12 other college students from throughout the United States. The students were all studying to become physical therapists or occupational therapists. It was a tremendous learning experience for Sato and also provided him with many wonderful memories as a student and a tourist.
"Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand. We flew into Bangkok in central Thailand and then drove 10 hours to Chiang Mai in two vans," Sato recalled.
Once the college students arrive in Chiang Mai, they worked with Therapy Abroad to help local children with developmental disorders. Most of the children were dealing with downs syndrome, autism, or cerebral palsy.
"We created games and toys for them that catered to their special needs," Sato said.
Sato was helping children with special needs for the first time.
"It was awesome to realize that at the end of the day these developmentally disabled kids are just kids trying to have as much fun as possible and that their disorders do not define them," Sato commented. "We played with the kids on a big play structure, and in those moments you can't tell that they have a disability. They are just kids being kids."
The experiences he gained with Therapy Abroad were important to Sato and gave him a better understanding of the disabilities impacting children in Thailand.
"One of the key learning points that stuck with me was becoming aware of how many people live with disabilities in Thailand," Sato said. "Hearing statistics about the disadvantaged population showed me how much effort we should be putting into improving these individuals' lives. They contribute to society far more than we think and they deserve our attention."
Sato and his new classmates stayed busy working with the children, but also found time to become involved in the community.
"The most rewarding piece of the trip for me was learning about Thai culture," Sato explained. "Our group also explored the city of Chiang Mai by visiting many temples and trying as much local food as possible. We learned a lot about Buddhism. We chatted with monks with help from our trip guides/translators and learned about the fundamentals of the religion. We also learned about the Lanna Kingdom, the group that ruled northern Thailand before being combined with Thailand itself.
"Towards the end of the trip, one of the temples we visited in our free time was called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep," Sato said. "This temple is on the mountains in western Chiang Mai and it overlooks the entire city. This was a special moment for me and my travel buddies as we thought about how much we were going to miss Thailand."
In addition, learning about local food and gaining an appreciation for the cuisine of Thailand was a significant experience for Sato. The additional knowledge went hand-in-hand with the many other things he learned while studying abroad.
"My favorite dish was called khao soi, a dish native to northern Thailand," Sato recalled. Khao soi is a dish similar to soup that includes a mix of deep-fried egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, perhaps with a meat protein or vegetables. "Our group did a cooking class where we made a few other Thai dishes including pad Thai.
"There was a night market across the street from one of the hotels we stayed at in Chiang Mai that we went to for dinner on several occasions," Sato recalled. "I made friends with one of the vendors, a man from Myanmar who spoke basic English. We chatted about soccer and how COVID was affecting his family back home. It was awesome to connect with him on a deeper level and have him recognize me when I would seek more of his street food."
Sato's trip to Thailand was an important part of his Willamette education and helped prepare him for a future career.
"Working with Therapy Abroad allowed me to broaden my network in terms of meeting future colleagues since I plan on becoming a physical therapist," Sato commented. "The trip gave me insight about the vast variety of therapy methods used to treat injuries and disorders aside from traditional exercise."
The study abroad opportunity was great for Sato. He also wants to share that enthusiasm with others and encourages fellow students, faculty, and staff to visit Thailand.
"Definitely consider traveling to Thailand once in your life," Sato said. "It's beautiful and I didn't want to leave. Also, studying abroad was one of the better choices I've made and it was an amazing learning experience in terms of life lessons and leading me closer to my career goals."