Syracuse University Magazine


        At a basketball game with colleagues and students, Donald Megnin ’54, G’65, G’68 samples a Thai delicacy that reportedly “tasted like sand a bit, but sweet.”

English Lessons in Asia

A Maxwell alum looks back on teaching in Thailand, an outgrowth of what began as the Syracuse-in-China program

By Donald F. Megnin

According to Syracuse University: The Critical Years (Syracuse University Press, 1984), the Syracuse-in-China Association, established in 1921 through the University’s Methodist affiliation, brought many Syracuse graduates to the city of Chungking (Chongqing) in West China for the purpose of establishing a three-fold mission of medical, evangelical, and educational work. Under the leadership of physicians Gordon Hoople ’15, G’19, H’67 and Leon Sutton ’17, G’19, the Syracuse-in-China staff renovated and operated an abandoned missionary compound owned by the Methodist Church that had been neglected since the end of World War I. Thanks to the efforts of the Syracuse-in-China team, the compound, which contained a church, hospital, and high school, was successfully rejuvenated before the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II forced the project’s conclusion. The bombing of Chungking began in 1939, and by 1943 the last member of the Syracuse-in-China unit left the city.

The University’s association with China was re-established that same year, however, when it entered into a sister relationship with West China Union University in the city of Chengdu. Through this new partnership, a Syracuse graduate was awarded a fellowship to travel to China to spend two years teaching English to Chinese students. The first recipient was Donald Flaherty ’43, G’54. After his two-year stint was completed, Thomas Scott ’48, G’61 followed during what was another tumultuous time in China. By fall 1949, the Chinese Communists had taken over the country, replacing the Chiang Kai-Shek government, and Scott was closely watched by the government until his two-year term was completed.

When his teaching term ended, Scott endured an interrogation, but was allowed to leave, initially traveling to Hong Kong. He was asked around that time by administrators of the Syracuse-in-China program to travel to Thailand to establish a similar program at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok before returning to the States. Scott did so, and Thomas Gill ’50, G’55 was the first Syracuse graduate sent to Thailand to teach English to Thai students. After his term was completed in 1954, I was his successor. I remained in Thailand until May 1956, teaching English composition and grammar for two years. Ruth Hoople ’14, G’15, who was Dr. Gordon Hoople’s sister, was director of what was then called the Syracuse in Asia program during the years I was in Thailand representing the University.

One memory that stands out for me from my time in Thailand was when I visited the home village of one of my students, whose father was the “headmaster” (mayor). We got off the train at an open field and began our three-mile trek, taking off our shoes and socks and rolling up our pant legs in order to walk through rice paddies, swamps, jungles, and open fields until we reached his village. As we walked, I suggested we return to catch the train for a ride to a nearby city, where we could spend the night at a hotel. It proved a bit difficult to convince his father that we wouldn’t be spending the night in his bamboo home. He did finally agree it would be better for us to return to a nearby city since they had no additional mosquito nets with which we could shield ourselves. He was willing to let us use his own nets, which we insisted would not be fair to him. Reluctantly, he finally agreed to let us return the same way we had come.

As teachers, our class sizes varied depending upon what level of students was assigned to us. My groups of students varied in number from 15 to more than 300. The smallest classes were for public speaking in which students gave presentations of less than four minutes each. On one occasion, an evening student asked if I could help a group of students improve their oral English capability. I agreed and arranged to meet them the next afternoon. When I arrived, he thanked me for coming and then led me to an auditorium in a part of the building where I had never been. There, he opened the door to reveal more than 300 Thai students awaiting us. I was taken aback by their applause as we entered. Momentarily overwhelmed, I asked him, “How do you expect me to teach 300 students to speak English at one time?” He replied, “That’s no problem for you, Acharn (Teacher). You can teach them any way you like!”

The students had arranged themselves so that roughly 100 were in each of the three sections of the auditorium. After introducing myself, I proceeded to write a short series of words on the blackboard, exemplifying an introductory conversation one person might have with another. I then had them repeat the dialogue, section by section, and continued to write new topics for them to practice, repeating one section after the other for the next hour. To my amazement, the students came up after the class and thanked me for helping them learn new words they had never used before! The organization of the “cheering sections” seemed to agree with them as I had them each repeat the vocabulary I had written on the board, one group after the other. They seemed to like the opportunity of using the words themselves in the smaller groups rather than en masse.

The chairman of the language department was Prince Prem Purachatra, a cousin of the Thai king. Although he led monthly departmental meetings, the real manager of the department was Nophakun Tongyai, the wife of a junior prince, also of the royal family. Nophakun, a Japanese American whose father married an American woman after he immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, had attended Cornell University, where she met his royal highness, Prince Tongyai, also a student at Cornell. They married in 1936 and then lived in Thailand and raised four children. Nophakun was really the chairperson of the language department, even though she was listed as its vice-chairperson.

During my second year in Thailand, I was asked by the director of the Student Christian Center, a youth hostel near the university, to live in the men’s dormitory as an advisor. Since it did not interfere with my role as a teacher of English at the university, I held this position until I left.

My successor in Thailand, Karl Schultz, stayed for less than a year before he was recalled to Syracuse due to a personal matter. No further representatives were sent to Thailand by the University. The Syracuse in Asia program next evolved into one of having Asian students come to Syracuse University and enroll for master’s degree programs in various fields until the program was given up around the end of the 1960s. These early programs set the foundation for the countless relationships, collaborations, and cultural exchanges that continue to thrive to this day between Syracuse University and the people of Asia.


Donald F. Megnin ’54, G’65, G’68, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences and master’s and doctoral degrees from the Maxwell School, is a retired Methodist minister and professor emeritus of international politics at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He resides in the Syracuse area.

asia_frame.jpgMegnin (second from left) visits with colleagues during his time in Thailand.