A Fair Trade

The organic rice farmer from Thailand wore a yellow polo shirt, a sign of respect for his country’s long-serving king. Underneath, the farmer wore a long-sleeve sweatshirt, a sign of respect for the Maine cold, to which he’d been introduced minutes before, after a car ride from Boston.

Sitting in Perry Atrium during his visit to Bates last February, this farmer, named Man Samsee, looked out at frozen Lake Andrews as the afternoon light faded. Through a translator, he asked with a slight smile, “What can you farm here, ice?”

In Perry Atrium, Samrat Thong-Iam (left) and Man Samsee (right) talk with Mallika Raghavan ’08. Working with ENGAGE director Chris Westcott ’03, she organized the Thai farmers’ visit to Bates during their national tour. Photograph by Rene Minnis.

The wintry surroundings left the 59-year-old Samsee and his fellow farmer, Samrat Thong-iam, feeling a bit untethered. But as they explained their reasons for coming to America — for a speaking tour to promote their fair-trade rice — the farmers’ words expressed only optimism. This happy anticipation was due in large part to what had made their trek possible: a network of U.S. college students whose study-abroad experiences had given them first-hand insights into the life of an organic farmer like Samsee or Thong-iam. “We know that these students already have a deep thought process about our organic agriculture,” said Thong-iam. “And that makes us proud to share our life stories.”

The student network that embraced Samsee and Thong-iam on their 10-city, seven-college tour last February exists thanks to Chris Westcott ’03, himself a veteran of the study-abroad experience, in South Africa and Thailand during his junior year at Bates.

Westcott is managing director a San Francisco–based program called ENGAGE (Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange), a nonprofit that’s like an alumni office for study-abroad returnees. It works with students emerging from transformative study-abroad experiences, harnessing students’ newfound talents and focusing them on various grassroots U.S. projects — like the Thai farmers tour last winter — that link back to their abroad experiences and to global issues. “Our model is all about returned students,” says Westcott.

Chris Westcott ’03 is managing director of San Francisco–based ENGAGE, a grassroots nonprofit that’s like an alumni office for study-abroad returnees.

Like thousands of returned students before him and since, Westcott gained confidence, self-knowledge, and practical skills while studying abroad. And like many others, he returned home a changed person, feeling out of step with family, friends, and College. Initially, “it was hard to connect my experiences back to Bates,” he says. Then Westcott discovered ENGAGE, founded a year prior by U.S. college students who’d also studied in Thailand.

ENGAGE achieved nonprofit status in 2003 and now has 400 members nationwide. While its $50,000 budget would barely send a kid to Bates for a year, and while its director works a second job at the sustainably focused Samovar Tea Lounge in the evening, in terms of tapping into the energy around study-abroad experiences, ENGAGE “is unique,” says Steve Sawyer, associate dean of students at Bates and director of the off-campus study program. “We know study abroad has a great influence on students. Chris is taking that experience to the next level.”

During last February’s speakers tour from San Francisco to Maine, Man Samsee and 39-year-old Samrat Thong-iam spoke to fair-trade groups and visited several colleges. At each stop, student members of ENGAGE handled everything from accommodations to publicity. “We do the macro organization,” Westcott says, “but the energy of our members makes it happen at the micro level.” Indeed, spending time mostly with college-age activists gave the two farmers lasting impressions of American youth: “They don’t watch TV and they are vegetarians,” laughed Kyra Busch, who traveled with Thong-iam and Samsee as translator.

Mallika Raghavan ’08 of Chappaqua, N.Y., and Bowdoin junior Bennett Haynes coordinated the farmers’ travels in Maine. For Raghavan, who studied in Thailand in fall 2006, ENGAGE “means that my study-abroad experience never has to end. The transition back to Bates was difficult, but what helped was identifying with a passionate group of people who were concerned with the same issues I was.”

But more than just a support group, ENGAGE also addresses the perceived lack of equality in relationships between farmers like Samsee and Thong-iam and the advantaged students who breeze in and out of their villages each year. Westcott confronted that issue while studying the role of local communities in managing South Africa’s national parks. “Someone said to me, ‘You get to use this research. You get to write a thesis. What do we gain?’” Westcott recalls. “I really struggled to answer that question.”

“It’s crazy, really,” he continues. “When you’re a student, you get to sit in the study-abroad office, look at a world map, and choose from all these amazing programs. That’s privilege, and we’re trying to change that imbalance by building longer-term relationships with communities, in order to give something back.”

After graduation in 2003 as a summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa environmental studies major, Westcott traveled back to Thailand with ENGAGE. There, he met and lived with Samrat Thong-iam, helping his co-op successfully establish a fair-trade market in the U.S. (also helping on this initiative have been Batesies Kaia Peterson ’01, Alexis Curry ’03, Meredith Maller ’05, and Gene Stewart ’06).

“I remember telling Samrat we would help him sell his rice in the U.S., and maybe we’d bring farmers to the U.S. for a tour,” recalls Westcott. “He was, like, ‘Sure, whatever. We hear people talk like this all the time.’ We both had a laugh about that conversation when I picked them up at the airport this year.”

As leaders of fair-trade rice cooperatives in their respective villages, Thong-iam and Samsee, whose rice is sold in Europe, have met many American students, most of whom, like the Batesies, have been part of a program in northeastern Cambodia run by the Council on International Educational Exchange. When American students first visited years ago, Thong-iam says he was skeptical of their sincerity. Why were they interested? What were they were seeking? Now, he says, “we know they have a real interest in our work in organic agriculture. We have formed real relationships.”

The path from doubt to trust, he says, is like “seeing the flip side of a hand.”