Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to School with Susan Morgan

I first met Sue when I moved to New York many years ago. Over the years our careers took different directions with Sue leaving New York to follow her interest in Thai art and culture. Although Sue recently spent time in New York, her home is now in Chiang Mai where she lives with her husband and son. In Thailand Sue taught art, created a widely shown documentary on the use of hemp fibers in life cycle rituals healing practices of the Hmong hill tribe people, conducted preschool workshops with Burmese refuge women, and started her own pre-school.

In 2002 during an extended visit with her mother, she attended Brookdale Community College in New Jersey to begin working on a degree in pre-school education. However, needing to divide her time between Thailand and the US she researched online universities. In 2005 she enrolled in Empire State’s distance learning program and will complete her coursework in December 2009. Her degree will be in art and cultural studies.

This interview was taped on July 31,2009 and reviewed by Susan. Please send your comments to us by clicking on the message icon at the end of the interview.

What prompted you to go back to school?

The reason I went back to school was to learn more about early childhood education because that was where I was working. I took two courses at Brookdale and those courses gave me a wonderful insight into what I didn’t know. I then went back to Thailand and when I decided to come back to the States a second time for my son’s health I was given an opportunity to finally receive a college education. With my husband’s support, the time seemed right for me to get my college degree. In addition, I was encouraged by my cousin who was impressed by my work in early childhood education and with refuge women in Thailand. Online education is very expensive so her support was essential. I had really enjoyed the courses at Brookdale so this was something that I thought I would like to do.

Could you elaborate a bit more about the online experience – what was it like?

For the online schools you really have to do your research because it is easy to be hooked into something that is not good. Initially, I had been accepted into an online college in the storm path of Katrina. They were going to give me 78 credits right up front. Then I found out they were not a reliable or accredited university. In my research I learned that a lot of the online schools will give you a degree but there is a controversy about the accreditation process. You have to be very, very careful before you spend your money that you are getting a degree from a recognized institution.

You mentioned taking initial courses at Brookdale and now you have almost completed your degree online, what has been most rewarding about your decision to return to school?

I think learning things that I should have learned years and years ago. It’s like doors opening – making new connections to my experience. Being self-educated in the art field I can now see certain relationships that I would not have uncovered had it not been the opportunity to further my education. Also, having new experiences is rewarding. I really like the fact that I can bring what I know to all my courses whether it’s science or mythology or art. I have a lot of history behind me that I can actually bring to the course. So that is quite rewarding to know that I know I can do these things.

I think family support is rewarding. My son who appreciates how hard I am working gives me a high five every time I get an “A.” Having peer relationships within the courses and professors who say you are on the mark and doing really great work, that’s all fuel for the fire for staying in the course and helps me keep going. The mentors that I have met are really helpful. The biggest surprise is that I’m holding a 4.0 average.

Can you elaborate a bit more on the role of mentors at Empire State?

You are given a mentor before you even start your courses. The mentors guide you through the process of obtaining life credits. There is a lot of reading and writing that you need to do to prove that you actually learned what was in those subject areas. To request life credit, referred to as Credit by Evaluation, you need to demonstrate that you have the equivalent knowledge even though you did not take a formal course.

There are two courses that you have to take prior to starting your general requirement courses. They are prep courses and every class that you want to get credit for you have to be evaluated and interviewed. The mentor who is in your area of interest for the degree program, helps you through this process and assists in the designing of your course work or Degree Plan. The mentor also prepares you for the interviews and other requirements. My mentor is not as involved now as she was in the beginning but I let her know the types of things that I am working on. She responds with encouragement, accolades and helps on any changes that need to be addressed over the requirements of the degree program.

What have been some of the obstacles in going back to school?

Every new course that I start at first seems challenging. The amount of work is a bit frightening and things have changed a lot since I started the degree program. The college is starting to add more work within each of their module courses. Every time you open up a new course you see a ton of work that has to be done every week. Because you are not in the classroom you have to write a lot more and do more work online than if you were in the classroom. That’s a little bit scary and sometimes nerve wracking.

There have been some disappointments with students because you don’t meet them in person as in a traditional classroom. You can start to tell which ones are motivated to get their degree and which ones are not. So discussions can sometimes be disappointing. Within the online courseware you can communicate in a discussion area with other students and sometimes the exchanges can be really good and other times they can be totally boring. So that has been frustrating.

You started the program while you were in the US and then continued when you went back to Thailand. How is this working between two very different places?

You can be anywhere in the world to take classes on the Internet. You can get all your resources online. The problem where I live there is not a big library where I can go and do research. I have to relay more on the Internet for my research and there is an expense of shipping books overseas. Those are the drawbacks. As long as I can stay connected I can do all the work from anywhere in the world. Empire actually has students from Europe as well as professors from other countries including India. They also have military students as well as people from all over the world.

How do you stay motivated?

The courses motivate me because they are interesting. I know that there is a goal at the end that I have not had before. There is encouragement from professors and other peers. Within the group that you are working with you are encouraged to get your degree and there is interest in what you are doing.

I don’t think you get as much from your family members. I think that will come later. I think my son is more encouraging. I also think that husbands have a hard dealing with it. They think because you have decided to go back to school that you will still be able to deal with family life and work life. When you moan that you have to do another paper, they kind of look at you and say you chose this. I hear similar comments from a lot of other women who are in my classes. I don’t know if the male students get this message from their spouses. It’s because you are taking yourself away from the family unit to do something personal that seems to upset the apple cart. They may be proud of you for working on your degree but then they are less sympathetic when you complain about having to do another paper.

Has the experience prompted a change in how you see yourself?

Yes, a big change. I think that I can actually do certain things that I thought I would never be able to do. Like writing. I don’t have a writing background and getting high grades for writing essays is amazing. So the experience has allowed me to think about new possibilities in my life. I could write articles or catalogs for people. It has made a change in how I think about myself.

Every time I take another class I get totally involved in it. I am reading all this material on the environment for a science class and I think I should drop all this stuff in art and save the environment. You become totally absorbed in the material and you get different points of view on things you didn’t know before.

This leads to my last question about your next steps.

I should finish my coursework in December and then officially graduate in June 2010. Since I am living overseas, I really can’t put my finger on what my next steps will be. I don’t know what doors will open. Could I get hired at a university in women’s studies or cultural studies or do something in the art world there? These possibilities will have to unfold.

Sometimes I think I can take the cultural and art studies and turn it into something else. I do live near a border where there are refuges and other issues that are growing in the region. Can I find ways to assist women who are refuges? My degree is going to be in art and culture so I am looking for ways to merge those two interests. I don’t know what’s going to happen next and I don’t want to commit at this time. I like the idea of not being fixed so that I can look at all the possibilities that may come my way.

Susan is currently preparing an article for the interdisciplinary journal, Femspec, Skydancers: Thai Women Artists Who Dance Across Cultural Borders. The essay explores the works of Thai women artists over a period of 50 years with a concentration for are as women, mothers and artists in a male dominated society. It offers a brief history of the struggle that Thai women artists have had to over come and how western society has influenced their work. It presents how Thai women artists turned to their inner self to explore new ideas for expressing Thai culture, feminist views or spiritual beliefs. If you would like to learn more about Susan’s cultural work, please contact her at:

For information on Susan’s video, please visit:

Blog photo: Spinning, a mixed media relief, by Susan Morgan