Long way from home: Kenna Howorth (center) spent her junior year of high school in Thailand, the first step, she hopes, in a lifetime traveling and working internationally. (Photo provided)

Kenna Howorth spent the last academic year in Thailand as an exchange student and despite a mysterious illness and some scary encounters with spiders she had, overall, a great time.

Howorth, 16, is now back home in Brookfield and will be a senior at Riverside-Brookfield High School in the fall. She had always wanted to study abroad and applied to a few programs and was accepted to the Kennedy Lugar YES Abroad Youth Exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State.

“Because I want to study foreign languages and international relations in college, it seemed liked an experience that would be very beneficial,” said Howorth. “My entire life I’ve known that I wanted to travel the world as my career.” 

Although the year was tough at times, Howorth said that she certainly grew as a person and became more self-confident living in a foreign country more than 8,000 miles away from home.

“The experience changed me quite a lot, because I think I tested my boundaries a lot and I tried new things,” Howorth said.

Howorth, who was only 15 when she arrived in Bangkok last July 4, traveled about 225 miles north to the town of Kamphaeng Phet, a town with a population of about 45,000. She met her host family, two teachers with a 7-year-old daughter, and she attended a large school just a couple blocks away.

She quickly embraced life in her new country.

“I think I adjusted to Thailand quite quickly, because I just accepted everything as being new,” Howorth said. “Nothing was the same. I was just completely blown away by everything I was seeing.”

Placed in a class with 57 Thai students in a school with about 3,000 students, Howorth concentrated on cultural studies: English, Chinese, cooking, dance and the like.

“All of my classes were in Thai except for my English classes,” Howorth said.

She also helped out, often informally, teaching English to Thai students.

Living in Thailand brought unexpected challenges, “small culture shocks like bugs and lizards and things like that,” Howorth said.

On her second day at her new home she went up to her bedroom to grab something and turned on the light.

“A lizard fell from the light on my ceiling and ran down my shoulder and off my body and I looked at it and the lizard was gone,” Howorth said.

But it wasn’t as easy to shrug off spiders like the big spider with yellow spots which once camped out on her bedroom floor. 

“I was curled on my bed with a broom in my hand,” said Howorth, whose host dealt with the arachnid intruder.

But Howorth’s biggest challenge was a mysterious fever she developed in September that landed her in the hospital for nearly three weeks. She was briefly in intensive care. It started with sore throat and then developed into nausea, and extreme muscle weakness. 

She lost quite a bit of weight and couldn’t keep much food down. She broke out in hives, probably as a result of an allergic reaction to antibiotics that she was given to address the fever.

Being in the hospital was hard and scary because many of the nurses and doctors spoke no or little English and Howorth often found it hard to communicate with them. 

Once her parents back in Brookfield found out about that their daughter was hospitalized, they were sorely tempted to go to Thailand to see her but decided not to.

“It was certainly hard, but we knew that was in good hands and we were kept informed and we were comfortable with the fact that she was receiving the care that she needed,” said Chrissie Howorth, Kenna’s mother. “We knew it wouldn’t be in Kenna’s best interest to overreact.”

Finally the fever cleared, without her ever getting a clear diagnosis of the cause, and Howorth was released from the hospital just two days before her 16th birthday. She returned to her host family and school.

“While this was one of the hardest and loneliest experiences of my life, I am a much stronger person now because of it,” Howorth wrote of her illness on the blog that she created about her year in Thailand.

Food in Thailand was different: lots of noodles, rice and fruit. Her favorite dish was som tum, an unripened papaya salad. She usually ate fried pumpkin for lunch and snacked on seaweed and smoothies. Her host family took her out for pizza once a week.

School in Thailand was also quite different than what Howorth was used to. She had to wear a uniform: a white blouse and a long skirt.

“I liked my uniform because it had my name written in Thai on it, and it made me feel like I was really a part of Thailand, like I was real Thai student,” she said.

She developed close friendships with seven Thai girls in her class and they ate lunch together and hung out when they could after school. 

Thai boys were another matter.

“A lot of Thai boys were terrified to talk to me,” said Howorth, adding that Thais tend to be more reserved than Americans.

“Americans are very direct where Thai people are more indirect, and you noticed that in smaller ways as well,” Howorth said. “I personally almost never witnessed people hugging each other. I never saw any public displays of affection, so any time people would touch you, put a hand on your shoulder or give you a high five or a hug it was pretty meaningful.”

Blonde and blue-eyed, Howorth quickly became accustomed to sticking out. She got lots of attention.

“Any time I entered any place everybody would look at me; I just got used to that,” Howorth said.

She said that her appearance helped her integrate into Thai life, because people wanted to talk to her and find out about her and America.

Howorth said Thai classrooms were much more formal than those she was used to here. Students would stand and sort of bow, called waing, to their teachers at the beginning and end of a class period.

She went on many field trips and she was able to travel around Thailand periodically to meet up with other foreign exchange students and for more language training. After her school term ended in the winter she had no formal classes from March until coming home in May. 

During that time she took trips traveling throughout Thailand visiting other exchange students, helping out in the AFS office in Kamphaeng Phet, and spending time in Bangkok. She fell in love with Thailand.

“Thai people are generous and friendly and lovely people,” Howorth said. “I was so happy in Thailand.”

She liked Thailand so much that she and her family will be hosting a Thai foreign exchange student who will be attending RBHS this fall. Howorth met her in Thailand before coming home.

Returning home from Thailand in May, Howorth and the other YES Abroad students first stopped in Washington, D.C., for a three-day debriefing and to report on and share their experiences.

Unbeknownst to Kenna, her mother was in Washington at the same time attending a work conference. When Chrissie Howorth realized that she and her daughter had been booked on the same United flight home to Chicago, she decided not to tell her daughter and she surprised her daughter on the plane right before takeoff.

Chrissie Howorth said that the year in Thailand changed her daughter.

“I think she’s become very resilient and curious about the world,” Chrissie Howorth said.