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A summer to remember

By Caroline Kilaru

Wilton Burns, a rising junior at UNC, will travel to Thailand this summer as a Phillips Ambassador to Asia. Burns, who graduated from East Chapel Hill High School in 2010, is majoring in environmental sciences at UNC. She sat down with us to chat about her upcoming adventure a few days before catching her 30-hour flight overseas.

The Carrboro Citizen: Wilton, tell us about your upcoming trip.

Burns: I’m going to Bangkok, to study at the Joint Graduate School for Energy and the Environment (JGSEE) at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT). I’ll be living in an apartment with two other UNC students, taking classes and conducting research throughout the summer and fall of 2012.

I’ll be going over a month early to backpack around Thailand with several other students. We’re going down to the beaches to see the Full Moon Festival, and then on June 20 all of the other students in our program join us, and we start taking environmental chemistry.

TC: You grew up in Chapel Hill. How did that inform your desire to go overseas?

Burns: I moved to Chapel Hill from a small town in upstate New York when I was 14. I enrolled in East Chapel Hill High as a sophomore. My mom graduated from UNC in ‘79, my oldest brother graduated from Duke in ‘08 and my other brother is also currently a student at UNC, so we have been in this area for a while even though we moved here recently. Although I have only lived in Chapel Hill for six years, I definitely call it home. …

My sophomore year I was part of a group to travel to San Ramon, Nicaragua, for spring break to do service work for the week at our sister school. I was part of the Unity Crew in high school and we worked to promote diversity in the three Chapel Hill High schools (East, Chapel Hill and Carrboro). Going to school in Chapel Hill has been amazing, and I never want to leave. I’ve fallen in love with Carolina and Chapel Hill and I’m excited to tell people about it while abroad in Thailand.

TC: Why were you drawn to studying in Thailand? Couldn’t you study environmental sciences at UNC?

Burns: I’ve taken chemistry classes before, but they don’t really relate to the environment; the classes taught at JGSEE give you an in-depth look at how certain issues impact the planet. The quality of the research performed in this program is exceptional; students in years past have had their research projects published in peer-reviewed journals after returning home.

Also, I’ve just finished my sophomore year, but I’ll be able to take graduate-level courses in Thailand. Everyone says that the courses are fascinating – they give you a much deeper look at the issues under investigation than if you remained in a classroom setting in Chapel Hill.

So for me, that was the appeal: I would be able to travel, be independent, see the world, but also to have a profound academic experience in my field.

TC: Have you been to Southeast Asia before?

Burns: Actually, no, and when I first learned about the program I thought, there’s no way.

My father told me about the Phillips Ambassadors scholarship, a merit-based award that provides funding and additional programming around study in Asia, but I thought I’d want to go to Australia or somewhere more American.

Then I took a class at UNC about Western experiences in Southeast Asia, and it made me so excited because all the texts we studied were travel narratives, and I began to see that this was something I could do.

Shortly thereafter, Professor Richard Kamens, who leads the UNC program in Thailand, came to tell us about the Thai field site in our Introduction to Environmental Sciences class, and I was sold.

TC: What do you hope to accomplish with this trip overseas?

Burns: I want to become more independent. I’m grateful I’m going early to backpack around. I’ve never done that before, and I think it’s a really important experience for people of my age. Everything has been so structured in my life, since I was young – sports and school, everything so regimented – so I’ve always done what I was told.

Now I’m going to plan my trip on my own, buy my own bus tickets, plane tickets. I am going to do this for myself.

Wilton Burns will be in Thailand studying environmental sciences for seven months. You can follow her adventures online via her blog, beingboldinthailand.blogspot.com

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