Rotary International Student Exchange to Thailand: One Global Musician's Story

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Jan 18, 2015 / 0 comments

Early exposure to languages and folk melodies instilled in global musician Shannon Heaton a love of tradition. From her first music lessons (piano with her mom, recorder from her Belgian neighbor in Nigeria), to rehearsals on Aacharn Jiraporn's porch in Suphanburi, to winters in Clare, she has been drawn to traditional music.

After stints in Milwaukee, Chicago, Colorado, Nigeria, Thailand and Ireland, Heaton settled in Boston in 2001, where she performs Irish music with guitarist-husband Matt Heaton. Shannon is also a passionate teacher of Irish flute and traditional-style singing and is deeply involved with her local Boston traditional music scene. She co-founded Boston's Celtic Music Fest 12 years ago with cohort Laura Cortese. On her days off, she makes up songs and does crazy art projects with her son Nigel.


Playing music today with my teacher who started me out in 1988!!! Musician Shannon Heaton on the importance of studying abroad

Playing music today with my teacher who started me out in 1988!!!


What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

By the time I was 16, I'd lived in Africa and travelled extensively throughout Europe and Mexico with my family. I'd developed friendships with my parents' international colleagues and their kids. It felt natural to make my own overseas journey.

Once I was selected to be a Rotary scholar, I'd assumed I'd go to France and advance the basic French I'd learned as a kid. Twelve of us kids sat around a table at the Rotary office and stated where we'd like to go. I was the last to be asked; and by the time it came to me, I'd heard EVERYONE else say either France, Germany, or England!! I felt I needed to represent somewhere besides Europe... and since I'd never been to Asia, I blurted out, "Vietnam!" The officer there asked me if Thailand would do.

My mom picked me up and said, "so, are you going to France?" I began sobbing, "no, I'm going to Thailand!!!!"


What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?

When I first went over, I was told I'd stay with a bilingual host family. I arrived to discover they spoke Thai and... Chinese!

We lived off the beaten (English speaking) path of Suphanburi, so it was total immersion for me. My Thai sister (one year my senior) and, really, my whole village helped me learn Thai in a jiffy. So learning the language was the biggest challenge--but it was also what connected me deeply with a network of classmates, market vendors, rickshaw drivers, traditional musicians. Some of my favorite moments were practicing Saw Oo (alto lap fiddle) with fellow musicians at Aacharn Jiraporn's house... and walking around eating fruit and laughing with my Thai sister Goung and my cousin Pii Ree.


My host mom & dad back then! Shannon Heaton's study abroad experiences in Thailand

My host mom & dad back then!


My host dad now. Global Musician Shannon Heaton on the importance of studying abroad

My host dad now!


What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? If so, how & why?

After learning a language by just being totally immersed, every other challenge has felt manageable. I came back (and then continued to return to Thailand), confident in my abilities to learn new things and still be myself. Humor is different in different languages--the day I could successfully convey my own jokes and sarcasm in Thai was the day I understood how I can be sensitive and adaptable in new settings... and still bring my own authentic genuine skills and personality into play.


Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? If so, how?

I am not daunted by big projects (I'm a self-employed musician and have toured 4 continents with my guitarist-husband and young son!). I value learning from different perspectives. I am still impossibly critical (of myself and, yes, of other people at time) and impatient--but I can detach and observe these traits in myself and slowly, slowly, dial in more patience and humor. Using my finely tuned antennae to observe and learn Thai language and customs quickly taught me to trust my acute powers of observation. As I continue to grow, I try to train those abilities on creative and positive pursuits... and not to notice and care about every little sock on the floor!


What advice (on finances, the experience, etc.) would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

It's great to have a support network at home, so you KNOW you can call on help if you need it. And it's great to have some degree of street smarts in this mostly beautiful world. But beyond that, it's okay to not overplan. Life is short and magical, and everything is ephemeral. Why NOT just seize the opportunity to have a completely unique and unexpected experience and not sweat the details before jumping in. We have NO idea how anything is going to go... why not do it in a different language!


Playing music today with my teacher who started me out in 1988!!! (this time with my husband and young son in tow...). Shannon Heaton in Thailand, where she studied abroad in High School

Playing music today with my teacher who started me out in 1988!!!
(this time with my husband and young son in tow...)


Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Thailand is a gracious, fascinating, warm-hearted country. Like everywhere, there are the seedier (drug/prostitution) elements. But these are exceptions to the exceeding generosity and deep tolerance that most Thai people espouse. Thai people are proud of their history and cultural splendor; and the traditional music, arts, cuisine, are beautiful expressions of daily creativity and reverence/humility.

and lastly, please finish this twitter-friendly slogan on why you love study abroad:

#StudyAbroadBecause ...




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This is part of a series on international education, as part of our commitment to #GenerationStudyAbroad and our commitment to the White House Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. You'll find many more inspiring stories here on Wandering Educators!




All photos courtesy and copyright Shannon Heaton