I recall applying to the Luce Fellowship with strong hopes, perhaps even assumptions, that the global grip held by COVID-19 would ease prior to my Luce Year’s beginning. Delta, Omicron, and varied responses to the pandemic certainly proved me wrong. A few days after completing the Japanese Immersion Program via Middlebury College,I was forced toabandon the notion of placement in Japan. Instead, my year would begin in Thailand by way of the novel Phuket Sandbox System—a quarantine system created by the Thai government in an effort to mitigate the severe damage to the country’s tourist sector, and by result, Thai GDP. At the time, I had little emotional investment in the pivoted decision and knew very little of Thailand or Thai culture. Further, I did not know that such a decision would acquaint me with a wealth of lifelong friends, a deepened understanding of community, a spectrum of profound experiences, and a love for a country that would ultimately change my life trajectory.

Through an existing connection with friend and colleague Dr. Pamornpan Komolpamorn, I was placed at The Royal Mahidol College of Music as a guest artist and lecturer. In addition to learning a great deal from the workings and rehearsals at Mahidol, I quickly began to learn a great deal from Thai culture—an Eastern lifestyle that prioritizes the group instead of the self. Like a delicate stream against rock, the world around me slowly eroded the admittedly self-focused mentality that rewarded me so handsomely back home. And with such erosion, my abilities to notice, appreciate, taste, and speak to the beauty around me became stronger…sharper.

Initially, I applied to the prestigious Luce Fellowship in hopes of expanding my professional experiences, weighting my curriculum vitae, and honing my specialized craft of conducting. And through the experience, I had the true pleasure of conducting and performing with The Thailand Philharmonic, the West Winds, and numerous secondary instrumentalists. These tested and honed my abilities to curate, create, and deliver in a foreign setting (during a pandemic!). But these incredible professional triumphs pale in comparison to the vivid, rich, and frequent personal moments I experienced in Asia.

I have arrived at the midway mark of the Luce Year with unprecedented excitement for the future. Like a child light-heartedly deciding their future career as an officer, pilot, doctor, or artist, I’ve returned to the feeling that the world is truly open to me. Not only am I no longer professionally bound to the “path more traveled”, but I have gained the confidence, ability, and peace to leave such a path.

I will soon leave Thailand. I do so not with the closing of a book, but rather the culmination of a chapter. As I must leave dear friends, new family, and beauty in the every day, I do so with the phrase “แล้วเจอกัน”, or “I’ll see you later.”

by Jonathan Villela on February 23, 2022