Recent Tabor College graduates Aaron Phillips and his brother, Levi Phillips, grew up in Thailand, where cultue and family played an important role in daily life. For the past four years, culture and family also contributed to the brothers’ educational challenges and success, culminating in two worlds brought together in Hillsboro, the weekend of their commencement exercises.
“We lived in Thailand for 23 years, so all five of our children grew up there,” father Michael Phillips said. “Three are our blood children and two we adopted because they were with us all the time and just became a very important part of our family.”
Michael Phillips and his wife, Naomi, served as missionaries in Thailand, training Bible leaders, working with agricultural research, developing revolving loan structures, and maintaining a dormitory for disadvantaged young people, especially little girls.
The Thai culture, which revolves largely around family connections and village community, became their way of life, and the only way of life their children knew before they came back to the United States for college education.
The Phillipses’ oldest child, daughter Sarah, moved to Canada for college, where mother Naomi still has citizenship. Extended family there eased her cultural transitions, and she graduated from Trinity Western College just outside of Vancouver last year.
When it was time for Aaron to leave their rural Thai village north of Laos and venture abroad for college, the family considered Kansas a good possibility because Michael grew up near Derby and had religious connections in the central part of the state.
“We had heard about Hillsboro and Tabor College from a friend whose son was going there,” Michael said. “So we thought it would be good for Aaron since he would know at least one person.”
The first year at Tabor was very difficult for Aaron, however, with social issues taking time for adjustment.
“I don’t think people take into consideration the needs of foreign students as much as they might,” Naomi said. “Kids who grow up overseas are used to being surrounded by family and friends, but here, after classes most people go home and turn on the television or get on the computer. That was just different for him.”
Michael said there were also significant differences in dating practices from Thailand to Hillsboro.
“In Thailand, young people go out in groups all the time,” he said. “You didn’t seek out someone for a one-on-one date unless you wanted to make a marriage proposal. Here, girls are very aggressive and direct. That took some getting used to for him.”
Aaron said supportive teachers and others in the community helped ease the loneliness of his first year in Hillsboro.
“The first year was really hard,” he said. “I didn’t actually think I would stay.”
However, the rest of the Phillips family came to Hillsboro the following year to bring Levi to the same college. They had planned to drop him off and spend only a few months, but a glitch with Naomi’s passport caused the family to buy a house in town and stay around for several years.
“Traveling has never been a problem for us,” Naomi said. “We are all accomplished international travelers. Sometimes staying in one place is difficult though.”
Naomi’s passport problems centered on an incorrectly filed 10-month visa that was only good for 8 months. This placed her residency in both the United States and Thailand in jeopardy.
“We found out that if Naomi left, she could not get back in and would be deported to Canada,” Michael said.
The result was that the Phillipses bought a home in Hillsboro, hidden away on the scenic west side of town, and their family residence became a gathering place for many foreign students through the years that Aaron and Levi attended classes at Tabor College.
“We’ve hosted a lot of groups here,” Naomi said. “They like to have cookouts in the back yard and play Frisbee and just hang out.”
On Tabor College graduation weekend, the Phillipes’ home became something of a grand central station. Daughter Sarah arrived from Canada, son Caleb — also a Tabor College student, studying social work — was currently at home but preparing to leave for Seattle, another son, Matthew, was visiting from Kansas City where he attends culinary arts school, and Michael was preparing to leave for Thailand on Sunday for a business trip.
“We haven’t been back there for four years,” he said. “When we came to Hillsboro, the kids left their beds unmade, we were planning on coming right back. We still have a home there.”
Home for the Phillips family is still Thailand, and they speak a native northern dialect at their Hillsboro residence. However, they carry out the important theme of family support and friendship wherever they are.
“We will be here until October 2013, which is when Naomi gets her official visa back,” Michael said. “But we will always be looking forward to going back to Thailand.”
After graduation, Levi, who graduated from Tabor with a degree in business administration, will spend the summer as an intern at the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church offices, he then hopes to get a job at Disney in Orlando.
Aaron graduated Saturday with a degree in graphic design and art. After an internship with a family friend/professional potter, he hopes to teach in Thailand someday.
Michael, who works as an adjunct art professor at Tabor College, said there were challenges to living in Kansas, but the family was grateful for the many kind people they met in the community and the quality of education their sons received at Tabor College.