By Emily Ballard
On the top floor of one of the oldest buildings on campus, one professor’s office overflows with the basics of a seasoned professor—stacks of antique books, coffee mugs and stacks of graded papers.
But these ordinary items take a backseat to the handcrafted silky banner of elephants that hangs across a crowded bookshelf and the photographs of elephant rides and world leaders. Kathryn Mueller’s office showcases her undying love for the culture and people of Thailand.
Boasting nearly 40 years as a senior lecturer of sociology at Baylor, Mueller estimates 18,000 former Baylor Bears can claim her as their former professor. Among these former students are her oldest son’s roommate and his roommate’s son, making her a multi-generational professor.
Over the years, Mueller has adapted to the college student’s sleep schedule to accommodate her students. Twice a month she holds what she calls “midnight madness office hours” during which her students can come into her office at all hours of the night to discuss grades, concerns or to share stories, she said.
“It’s a good thing for the athletes,” she said. “Usually they’re off having to practice during regular office hours. And so many of our students work outside of Baylor just to pay for our tuition. And I get to know my students better.”
Mueller said Baylor students and faculty have become part of her extended family, describing what she calls “the Baylor family” as a sort of phenomenon. Some of her former students even join Mueller’s family for Christmas if they do not have a place to go.
“It’s a way of life,” she said. “It’s not a job. It’s a vital part of who I am.”
It was a Baylor graduate from Thailand, Dr. Nirund Jivasantikan, who peaked Mueller’s interest in the country. Jivasantikan received a Ph.D. in education from Baylor. Mueller helped feed his family while they lived in Waco, and Jivasantikan told her he was going to build a university just like Baylor when he returned to Thailand, Mueller said.
Mueller said he then asked if she would come with her students to Thailand to teach English, study or travel when the school was built.
Mueller jumped on the opportunity to bring her students to Thailand to teach English to the children of the royal family and to study sociology in Southeast Asia.
The school that Jivasantikan built reserves 10 spots specifically for Baylor graduate students, Mueller said.
“It’s amazing how the Thai people have accepted us,” she said.
Mueller has befriended the Thai royal family who supplies her and her students with food, drinks, a place to stay and lasting friendships.
“Some of my best friends live in Thailand,” she said. “They are so welcoming when they see me, and it’s just amazing. When my husband died [in 2012] they sent cards and flowers. I got flowers from the princess.”
Her grandson, Baylor senior Josh Suelflow, studied abroad with his grandmother in 2011 through the Baylor in Thailand program that Mueller leads.
“She’s treated like a rock star over there,” Suelflow said.
The royal family even built two houses specifically reserved for Mueller and her Baylor students.
“We are able to get into the culture of the prestigious,” she said. “But I also go and stay with the poorest of the poor.”
The “poorest of the poor” Mueller described are the people that make up the Bisu ethnic group of Thailand—with a small population of around 1,000, according to peoplegroups.org.
Mueller said the Bisu hold a special place in her heart. When she visits them, they greet her with affectionate hugs and she sleeps outside under mosquito nets with them, she said. The Bisu children and Baylor students form special bonds too.
“The children are less reserved,” Mueller said. “And they love playing with our Baylor students.”
Some of the Baylor students who studied abroad in Thailand with Mueller fell in love with the country and the people just as Mueller did.
“I have three former students who, when they went over with us, made Thailand their home,” Mueller said.
These students, Mueller said, can speak three dialects of Thai and have become completely immersed in the Thai way of life.
When Mueller and her Baylor students studying abroad in Thailand are not mingling with the royal family or the Bisu people, they ride on elephants through Thai jungles, have sociology lessons on buses in transit and visit other Southeast Asian countries to explore and learn about their economic systems.
“I learned a lot from that,” Suelflow said. “More than I would have in a regular classroom.”
Mueller keeps the Baylor students in Thailand busy every second of the day, she said. They wake up around 6 a.m. and have jam-packed days, Mueller said. They also visit Cambodia, the Philippines and China.
“It’s not a trip,” Mueller said. “It’s an experience of a lifetime. It’s what I consider to be really immersed in a culture.”
Before Mueller guides her Baylor students through Thailand, she said she has to teach them proper Thai etiquette. Anyone taller than the king or queen is expected to squat down in reverence. Mueller has a short list of requirements for Baylor students wanting to study abroad in Thailand.
“They have to like rice,” she said. “They have to like warm weather. They have to be able to smile. If you just frown at people, Thai people become very upset because they want to make you happy.”
Mueller expressed longing to see her friends in Thailand but will have to wait until the summer of 2015 to see them again, she said.
“They’re family,” she said. “Like the Baylor folks here are family.”