Real-Life Thesis Seminar
Prasse-Freeman lessons from Thailand to Hardwood
Confused? Don’t be. Prasse-Freeman has always been about more than just what goes on the hardwood, and his six-week stint in Thailand this past summer provided him an opportunity to combine his sense of social justice with thesis field research.
“Obviously, it’s not part of the stereotype,” Prasse-Freeman says.
The Crimson’s starting point guard from almost the moment he arrived on campus, Prasse-Freeman has rarely fit any stereotypes about athletes. For one thing, he barely considers himself a jock.
“I’m one of the worst Division I athletes to play basketball,” he jokes, claiming that any success he’s had is due more to mental toughness than anything else.
Toughness and leadership are in abundance on this senior-laden Harvard team, and no one has more experience on the court than Prasse-Freeman.
But all that experience meant little thousands of miles away from home, in a strange Third World country.
“It is important to analyze the way Buddhism could potentially reinforce the exploitation of prostitutes on a purely religious level and how this potential correspondingly becomes exacerbated by culture.”
That line, taken from Prasse-Freeman’s social studies thesis prospectus, was the motivating reason behind his trip.
Thailand is notorious for its sex tourism industry, and many human rights organizations point to its exploitation of young girls as one of modern humanity’s glaring failures. And since over 90 percent of the Thai population identifies itself as Buddhist, Prasse-Freeman, as any good Ivy assists leader should, wanted to make the connection.
So he wrote up the grant proposal, and, after securing the company of roommate Patrick Toomey ’03 by promising a little backpacking, the 6’3, 180-lb. Prasse-Freeman set out in mid-June to visit monks and young, poverty-stricken girls.
In his mind, this trip could not just be about academics.
“I felt like if I was going to do it, I wanted to help people,” Prasse-Freeman says. “There’s a lot of sympathy for the prostitutes. There’s really a lot of sympathy for everybody.”
He got to Thailand and immediately realized the difficulties. For one thing, the phenomenon of exploitative prostitution was so pervasive as to make it impossible to get a grasp on the whole thing. For the uninitiated, field research was tough.
“The prostitutes didn’t have the English, and I didn’t have the Thai skills to do it properly,” he says, though he has been taking more intensive classes in the language to make a return trip possible.
But that wasn’t too serious a setback, because Prasse-Freeman wanted mostly to talk to Buddhist monks and NGO workers in Thailand who would help him answer the religious and political questions.
Traveling by bus to different regions of the country and various refugee camps, he gradually began to flesh out exactly what he needed to learn.
“I talked to monks a lot about what the sangha’s role in the issues of social justice,” Prasse-Freeman says. (Sangha means “community of monks.”) “What should their role be? I had a lot of doctrinal questions about where spiritual Buddhism and mainstream idolic Buddhism diverge.”
Earlier research had shown that some monks were directly involved in corrupt practices like owning brothels or gambling parlors. From interviews with academics, local officials and international volunteers, Prasse-Freeman got a sense of how enormously sad the situation in Thailand has become.
“[Prostitutes] are as young as seven, and the thinking there is that they’re too young to have AIDS,” Prasse-Freeman says. “The phenomenon began during the Vietnam War, when GIs on leave came to Thailand. After the war, demand plummeted, so they began doing these ‘sex tours’ as a way to bring business back up. Now, however, there is also a lot of local Thai use.”
His field research has led him to a mixed stance on whether Buddhism plays a severely negative role on the welfare of these young girls.
“My own preliminary conclusion is that Buddhism is not really responsible for the sex industry,” he explains. “If Buddhism was eliminated tomorrow, the sex industry wouldn’t evaporate.”
But in his prospectus, he concedes that the religion is at least “culpable” and holds a unique, untapped power to alleviate the conditions that force girls into the sex industry.
Like he often is after a subpar effort on the basketball court, Prasse-Freeman was hard on himself. He determined that his research was incomplete and that he didn’t have the tools to write about what he wanted to exactly. So, in the past few weeks, he changed his topic to something else he had been exploring while in Asia—the phenomenon of internally displaced people in Burma due to ongoing civil strife.
“They have two million refugees,” he says. “That’s way too high a number.”
‘NO MORE EXCUSES’
Prasse-Freeman’s constant inquiries about social justice issues are not just talk. He has run the Phillips Brooks House program on prisoner education, and in his two spring breaks has gone to Tijuana to build houses for the impoverished. He even perceives problems within the collegiate athletic world, which is one of the reasons he came to Harvard in the first place.
“I enjoy not being a scholarship athlete,” he says. “In many ways the NCAA is exploitative of its student-athletes, especially its stars.”
It’s this type of intelligence and leadership that has made Prasse-Freeman a favorite of Harvard coach Frank Sullivan, who has given him control of the offense for three years in a row and did not recruit a point guard in this year’s freshman class. Despite ball control issues last season (Prasse-Freeman’s assist-to-turnover ratio was 1.1:1), Sullivan thinks maybe the summer will help his floor general improve.
“I’ve watched him grow for four years and I’ve noticed something different about him this year,” Sullivan says. “I really think that trip had an impact on him. There’s just been a difference in the way he carries himself and it’s been very positive. I mean, how could it not have an impact? You’re in Thailand studying about the exploitation of women and prostitution, and writing emails back to home on the back of a bus?”
Whatever the case, everybody involved knows Prasse-Freeman must make more of a positive impact than last season. Though there were legitimate reasons for his slowdown—including situations where only nine Harvard players were healthy for practice, forcing him to play all-time PG—Prasse-Freeman says that this year the theme is “No More Excuses.”
“I’ll admit I struggled last year,” he says. “I think it’s because I didn’t have as much fun as I should be having. I was taking everything way too seriously.”
So perhaps he’ll have more fun this year even if Harvard is in a tight spot. After all, Prasse-Freeman has been to a place where anyone would gladly have their worst problem be too many turnovers.
—Staff writer Rahul Rohatgi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.