Alex Coulston's Eight(ish) Years of PiA

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

By Liam Reilly 

Many Princeton in Asia (PiA) alumni will be familiar with Alex Coulston, sometimes known simply as ‘Coulston’ or ‘Coulsty’. Some might have known Coulston during their fellowships back in 2010 when he was placed in Singapore. Others—Fellows in Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia from 2013 to 2015—might have known him as their Program Director (PD). And still others—Princeton alumni who spent their undergraduate summers teaching in Jishou as part of PiA’s Summer of Service Program between 2015 and 2018—might have known him as their Staff Leader. During these eight years, Coulston has had the chance to work with students from around the world, imparting to them his passion for international exchanges of knowledge while likewise helping them discover their own interests.

Originally from Maine, Coulston moved to California when he was eleven. In High School, he developed an interest in Middle Eastern cultures, an interest he pursued as an International Studies major at Emory University. In 2009, Coulston graduated from Emory and took a job in Washington D.C. at the Merdian International Center. At twenty-two, he found that he had only an inkling of what he wanted to do professionally. What he did know, however, was that he wanted to live and work abroad.

It was about this time that Coulston first heard of PiA.

“I was looking at so many different ways [of going abroad]” remembers Coulston, “Princeton in Asia came up, and I loved what the organization stood for. It sounded more casual than other programs: more personal and less uptight, and they had incredible posts. When they spoke about their mission—things like ‘building long lasting relationships’ and the genuineness of cultural exchanges therein—I really loved that.”

Acting on this desire to live abroad, Coulston applied for a PiA fellowship in Autumn of 2009, and, after months of essays and interviews, received word that he had been selected for a teaching position at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore. After discussing the matter with his PD, Coulston decided he wanted to teach Spanish. As a Cuban-American, he had long since been interested in the relationship between language and culture: he saw his time in Singapore as a chance to explore this relationship, both with his native Spanish, but also with the many languages within the city-state.

Coulston looks back on his year as a PiA Fellow with immense fondness. It is, he says, the year that changed his life. Though his day-to-day work primarily involved Spanish instruction, his role proved to be much more nebulous: over the course of the year he also taught courses on contemporary issues, intercultural communications, and creativity, enabling him to become a part of the school’s community.

The end of the school year marked the end of his time as a Fellow. But Coulston was determined to stay in Singapore, and so he took a job at the Middle East Institute, a Singaporean think tank affiliated with the National University of Singapore (NUS). Much like his choice to teach Spanish in a predominantly non-Hispanophone country, Coulston’s choice here was predicated upon his determination to understand historical and cultural narratives different from those he had grown up with.

“That’s what I love about [the position]” says Coulston, “You’re really a part of the department that you work in: you’re definitely part of that community. it was really cool that this opportunity with PiA allowed me to really get to know the culture and the people here. I know a lot of people who had also been posted in Singapore, people who, because of that, still have friends here and connections to this place.”

Eventually, however, the love of teaching he had developed during his year as a Fellow prevailed, and he took a job at United World College’s Singaporean branch. When he heard that PiA was looking for a new PD, he decided to apply and was appointed to the Thailand program, PiA’s second-largest program (second only to China). Over the course of the next three years, Coulston would also become the Program Director of the Indonesia, East Timor, and Malaysia programs. 

Here again, Coulston looks back on his years at PiA fondly. “Before I moved to Princeton”, he reminisces, “I ended up going on my Asia trip—we all do a trip to visit all the Fellows once a year. I ended up doing mine within my first week.”

At the end of his trip, Coulston settled into his new home in Princeton, where he remained for three years. Shortly after his arrival, Alex Jones began to pitch the Summer of Service program to Coulston. Jones, who had served as the program’s Staff Leader for three summers, told Coulston that he would be a perfect fit. Apprehensive, Coulston initially turned the position down, but after several weeks he agreed to stay on for the program’s first week. However, after the first week it became apparent that Jones’ faith in Coulston was not misplaced. What was supposed to be a week became three years.

“I just love the relationships that I built, both with the Princeton and the Jishou students”, says Coulston. “It’s a sped up version of what a Fellow goes through: going into the field and having that experience, but as an undergrad and only for seven or eight weeks. It’s a quintessential PiA experience in the sense that it’s a really long partnership that inspires more self-awareness, more self-confidence, and an ability to think both outside the box and outside of where they’re from.”

This, Coulston says, is applicable to both sets of undergraduate students. Both the Princeton students and their Chinese counterparts are roughly the same age, and they often become quite close friends.

Asked what his favorite memory of the Summer of Service was, Coulston recalled a hot summer day on which he and the students hiked to a nearby beach: “It was one of those really hot days, so we went to this place where you can go swimming. A lot of the Chinese students don’t know how to swim. I remember a bunch of us were teaching them how to swim and that was a really special moment for both me and a lot of the Princeton students.”

Looking back on almost eight years of PiA, the only piece of advice Coulston would have given to his twenty-three year-old self (and to all those current Fellows poised for a year abroad) was to go with the flow, to “say yes to everything—to get to know where you are as much as you can—have an open heart and be open to everything around you”: to be deliberate in how your actions further your goals, but to also be open to change.

Coulston isn’t really sure what’s next for him: it might be another Summer of Service (#SOS2k19) or it might be graduate school. What he is sure of is that he wants to stay connected with the program and the network: “it’s my life” he stated with certainty. “I’ll definitely be involved in some way.”

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