The Life Skills Development Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand (based in Montreal, Quebec)
Mayumi Sato had different interests when she entered McGill University. It was not until her second year that she made the switch to geography (BA Honours in Geography, Double Minor in Arabic Language and East Asian Literature and Language), after taking a course in GIS. For Sato, much of her geography-related learning came from outside the classroom through social justice groups and a network of critical thinkers. Geography provided a space where Sato’s non-academic interests merged with her academic career. Currently, Sato serves as a program staff with The Life Skills Development Foundation (Rak Dek) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, through the Princeton in Asia Fellowship. Sato’s work centers around public health and social justice, specifically for migrant workers, vulnerable children, and stateless people in Northern Thailand.
1. How do you incorporate geography into your work?
I am working on a program that delivers social services, language classes, and livelihood skills training to Shan migrant workers to increase their personal and professional development. The Shan people are an ethnic minority who are from the neighbouring Shan state of Myanmar. They make up a high percentage of migrant workers in Northern Thailand. Of course, the nature of transnational migration is inherently geographical. Even within
Thailand, the way that many Shan people communicate and discover opportunities for life skills development is through internet communications and media. Cyberspace, despite it being a non-tangible space, has a geographical element and plays an integral role in how individuals mobilize and liaise with each other.
2. In what ways did your program prepare you for your career?
The opportunity to do an honour's thesis related to transnational movements peaked my interest in the idea of communication beyond defined borders. I think it is a combination of doing my readings, finding out what my interests were within geography, and considering how my extracurricular hobbies feed into a professional career. Over the course of four years, having a combination of research skills and a critical geography perspective helped me to understand my current path.
3. Looking back, what would you have done differently?
I would have taken more courses in the specialization in which I have the most interest. It was not until my third year of university that I really discovered post-colonial literature, which intersects with the discipline of geography in many ways. This stream of geography has altered how I perceive society, how I interact with people, and how I critically engage with my own positionality and privilege. Looking towards the future, I know that taking more classes in post-colonial geography will be a priority later in my postgraduate studies.
4. Do you have any advice for students wishing to attain a fulfilling career in geography?
I can only speak to students who seek a career in the development sector or international non-profit work. I would recommend pursuing relevant internships and work opportunities. Talk to students and professors in your department, and build your network. This will expand your knowledge on different occupations within the discipline, and refine your interests into key areas that you may potentially specialize in, academically and/or professionally. I would also advise students to consider smaller grassroots organizations for opportunities because many small organizations do tremendous work but are typically overlooked in favour of larger, international agencies.
To students who feel rushed to graduate, I would reassure them that there is no hurry to determine your ultimate academic or professional pursuits. In an age where university education is gradually becoming more accessible, there is no pressure in pursuing your graduate education immediately after your undergraduate career. If you are interested in something and you are working proactively towards that goal, time commitment should not be a concern.