When Dilllon Vassallo, ’12, decided to study abroad, he wanted to immerse himself in a new environment — somewhere physically and culturally further than Europe. “It was my one semester to get out of the box and do something different,” he says.

Enabled by a University of Richmond policy that allows students to apply financial aid awards to study abroad, Vassallo decided to spend a semester in Southeast Asia, studying economics and Thai studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok. With Thai classmates, Thai neighbors, and few English speakers around to help him order food in his first days, the environmental studies major grew to embrace the laid-back pace of Thai life.

“The first day I got there … we tried to order street food but didn’t know how and no one spoke English,” Vassallo recalls. “After a few months, you learn a little bit of the language and it feels so natural to walk down the street and say hello to people in Thai.”

Based on advice from friends who had studied in Thailand before him, Vassallo found an apartment overlooking the city’s skyline and in a residential area. “I was really glad I chose to live there instead of one of the more touristy areas,” he says. “I would walk down the street 15 minutes and take a boat to cross the river to school.”

Living in Bangkok, a city that sinks a few inches a year, Vassallo encountered some of the environmental issues facing Southeast Asia. The river that brought him to school, Chao Pharaya, flooded a few times while he was there, as did many villages in northern Thailand.

The city also suffers serious air pollution, giving Vassallo, an environmental studies major and business minor, the chance to learn firsthand the importance of quality housing in a newly industrialized country. Though he relished his walks on Bangkok’s streets, he could get peace and quiet in his apartment on the 23rd floor. “You’re high enough up in the building where you can escape the noise, chaos, and pollution down below,” he says.

The juxtaposition of serenity and chaos went beyond Bangkok, painting his whole semester in the region. On a trip to Laos, he took at 12-hour trip down the Mekong River, marveling at the efficiency of villagers in remote areas, who live in harmony with the river and mountains they call home.

“It’s a cool thing to see how these people are living completely self-sustainably, on their own, having no electricity, and using only the river as a means of transportation,” he says.

In contrast, on his trip to tourist Southern Thailand, he saw the degradation that can result from overdevelopment. “Phuket seemed overcrowded and almost destroyed by the amount of resorts, chain restaurants, and people that lined the beachfront,” he says. “A long time ago this place had much more culture and beauty to it, but it seemed like it became too popular, too fast, and now it’s just another beach.”

A highlight for Vassallo, who grew up on the water and works at a yacht club in the summers, was finally becoming licensed to scuba dive; he's hoping to use diving for research or an internship. But as a whole, he was most impressed by his personal growth.

“I learned a lot about myself. It’s crazy — stepping off a plane, and being somewhere completely different where you don’t really know anyone, no one speaks your language, and you just have to figure it out for yourself,” he says. “Not so many people have the opportunity to do that. It was great that Richmond gave me that chance.”