There are plenty of students like Che Chengsupanimit at Muhlenberg College. Generally, the sophomore wrestler lives a typical collegiate life, balancing the demands of academics and athletics while enjoying a rewarding social life.
In many ways, though, there aren’t any students like Che Chengsupanimit at Muhlenberg.
Nearly 9,000 miles from his native Thailand, Chengsupanimit is about as far from home as one could be. He came to the United States at age 12, spending his middle school years at a boarding school in Massachusetts before attending high school in Connecticut. He spends three months of every year – the summer – back in Thailand. The rest of the time, at least these days, Chengsupanimit spends worrying about his family back in Bangkok, where anti-government riots have turned violent in recent weeks. Unlike most of his classmates, he feels the very real weight of the goings-on a world away.
“Riots have been pretty common, but the most recent ones have been a lot more serious,” Chengsupanimit said of his homeland, where demonstrators are making a bid to thwart this month’s elections and overthrow its democratically elected prime minster. “Whenever I hear about people getting shot or dying, the first thing I do is make sure it’s not anyone in my family. I send an e-mail back asking them if everything is okay. They have been pretty smart about staying out of the most dangerous areas.
“My mom has been great about being careful and making sure I stay updated with the family. She tells me everything that’s going on with the country as well. It makes it easier to stay in touch.”
Helping to alleviate those worries in his original home, Chengsupanimit has made himself a second one at Muhlenberg, with plenty of help from his classmates and the school’s administration. He credits both for making his transition – and his experience as an international student – that much smoother.
“I’m definitely a noticeable minority, but it hasn’t bothered me much,” he said. “People seem genuinely interested in my story, so that’s been a great part of my Muhlenberg experience. It’s showed me that our students are really interested in learning about people. The less they have in common with someone, the more curious they are, and they don’t shut anyone out.”
Chengsupanimit is one of an increasing number of international students who have found a second home at Muhlenberg. Fourteen foreign countries are represented in the student body, everywhere from Afghanistan to Thailand to China to Bangladesh to Jordan. A student from Rwanda is scheduled to attend this fall.
“Students have offered me places to stay over Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the admissions office has done that too. They’re always inviting me places and it’s been really flattering. I’ve had a bunch of fun experiences like that,” Chengsupanimit said.
Chengsupanimit has also found a nice niche on the wrestling team. He first took up the sport in middle school, and has gradually adapted to the American style since then. This season, the sophomore has nine victories under his belt at 149 pounds, showing consistent improvement over the course of the season, which wraps up Sunday at the NCAA East Regional at King’s. When he goes back home for the summer, he trains with Thailand’s national team, working to master a sport that remains uncommon there.
“Wrestling is not a huge sport there,” Chengsupanimit said. “It’s not very popular, but the top guys usually stay there because there isn’t a lot of depth in the country. It’s a noticeably different style, but being able to practice with them is priceless.”
“The biggest issue has not been finding opportunities to improve; it has been keeping a positive attitude,” he said. “Especially transitioning from high school to college, because it’s a whole different playing field.
“I’m slowly shifting from being outcome oriented – winning and losing, or my place at a tournament – to more of the process. It’s about getting better and giving everything I have to give.”
Chengsupanimit has also given much of himself to the school. In addition to his athletic and academic endeavors, he works in the admissions office and stays in frequent contact with Muhlenberg’s Office of Multicultural Life. As a senior in high school, Chengsupanimit visited Muhlenberg with a teammate, and the rest is history.
“I just fell in love with campus when I was here,” he said. “My interview was great, and everyone was just really nice. I wanted that in a college, so I figured why not? It was already high on my list, but that experience sealed the deal.”
The past two months, Chengsupanimit (at left with head coach Jake Calhoun) and his fellow Muhlenberg students have experienced record amount of snowfalls. And even though Chengsupanimit is no stranger to snow, having lived in the Northeast for the last seven years, it’s a far cry from Bangkok, where temperatures are in the 90s.
“It is really cold, but there are times where I’ll look out the window and think, wow, I never would have seen this in Thailand,” he said. “It looks really pretty, but then I walk outside and the cold kicks in.”
As far away from home as he is, Chengsupanimit is far from alone. He has an older brother, who came to America at the same time he did, living and working in Florida. And he still visits his host family – with whom he lived during his high school years and considers a second family – for at least a week before returning to Thailand in the summer. His brother has already expressed a desire to attend Che’s graduation, and even though his mother and family likely won’t be able to make the journey to Allentown, Chengsupanimit makes certain they get to see as much of his new world as possible.
“My mom is hoping someone will film my graduation for her,” Chengsupanimit said. “She doesn’t mind so much, as long as there are pictures to share when I get back! She’s been very level-headed about me being away, and I like to share as many things as I can with her.”