Ashleigh Kong: Reflection from Thai-Americans in the Thai American National Internship Program
My name is Ashleigh Lauren Sureerat Kong. My father is Chinese Jamaican and my mother is from Thailand. I am a second-generation Thai-American from Miami, Florida with the privilege of living in Jamaica for six years, Miami for eleven years, and Canada for five years. I would like to express my gratitude to the Royal Thai Embassy, US-Asia Institute, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01).
Thank you to the Royal Thai Embassy team for representing and protecting Thai-Americans and Thai nationals in the United States. Mr. Ambassador Manasvi, P’Gift, and P’Mo have devoted themselves to strengthening bilateral cooperation between our countries and have provided TANIP participants from the past and present with their words of encouragement and support for all of our endeavors. From our first email exchanges in December to now being one of my biggest supporters, P’Gift is not just a mentor but family to me. I would also like to thank the US-Asia Institute for their role in the TANIP program – Mrs. Mary-Sue Bissell has always demonstrated her support and gratitude for her staff, TANIP, and our sister program, IMPACT. Thank you to Temi, Alec, Christina, and Zev for working tirelessly in coordinating our programs and securing our placements. Lastly, I would especially like to thank Congressman Fortenberry and his team. Congressman Fortenberry graciously welcomed me into his office with open arms and gave me his undivided attention through a one-on-one interview. We had an excellent conversation discussing our travels, opportunities to advance conservation and environmental policy in Thailand, and he noted the strong impression that P’Surat, a Thai diplomat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs left on his office two years before.
I was assured I wanted to follow P’Surat’s footsteps being a poised, intelligent, and graceful asset to the Fortenberry team. A few days before I started my internship, P’Surat told me the best advice “Always know what the Congressman wants before he knows what he wants. In the real world and in Congress, always be two steps ahead”. During my placement, the Congressman and his team treated me like an equal – not just an intern. I was entrusted to lead a legislative project with the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF), the Thai Government, and the United States Government tackling marine plastic pollution and debris in Thailand. My project was supported by my colleagues Mena Hanna, Alan Feyerherm, Reyn Archer and Andy Braner. My other duties in the office included handling diplomatic correspondence through Ambassador thank you letters, attending all diplomatic meetings, and answering constituent phone-calls. I was also lucky enough to find friends in the office: Ella, Theo, Caty, and Alee. Most of all, through this program I met my first Thai-American friends (Reid, Lisa, Justin, Ty, Jeremy, Ken, and Kathryn) who shared inside jokes about our Thai upbringing, laughed at old Thai songs we remembered growing up, and made me feel like I knew them forever after only a few weeks together.
Mr. Fortenberry says that national security, agricultural security, food security, and just about all securities are tied together. I agree. Security requires diplomacy and international cooperation. The United States and Thailand have 200 years of bilateral relations and are not only partners, but friends. The authentic friendship between our countries is crucial in creating the preconditions necessary in sustaining regional security, global health responses, and people-to-people exchange. This partnership is one of the most long-standing bilateral relationships in history and it is important for programs like TANIP to continue. The lack of Thai-American representation in the American political system requires youth and young professionals to engage with the policy and institutional processes beyond what a textbook can teach.
My summer internship experience on Capitol Hill solidified my desire to devote myself as a public servant to further strengthen the U.S-Thai bilateral relationship. The invaluable opportunity to participate in diplomatic propriety, directly interacting with Ambassador and embassy officials, and gaining hands-on experience in leading collaborative legislation through this internship is something I will be forever grateful for. The TANIP program also had the privilege to attend a luncheon at the Ambassador’s residence with our supervisors from our office! Most of all, finding a support system through this program allowed me to meet my first Thai-American friends from diverse backgrounds, walks of life, and states who are now my family. Being a good diplomat requires having the ability to see both sides of the coin. By placing yourself in your colleague’s shoes you may not fully conceptualize the context but having the empathy to listen and understand. My positionality allows me to keep both feet in the American and Thai world and I hope to one day serve in the highest position on the federal level as a representative for both worlds as Ambassador.