PhD graduate learned the language and earned her degree(s): ‘God prepared the way’

Montira “Niko” Junnawatt, PhD

Montira “Niko” Junnawatt will graduate with her PhD in May, but she’s already in Thailand as a faculty member at the Bangkok Institute of Theology.

Bangkok is back where she was born and raised, in a bicultural and bi-religious family—her mother is Chinese Christian, her father Thai Buddhist. Thailand is 99 percent Buddhist, but she was drawn to her mother’s Prebysterian church, which she started attending at age four. After her parents divorced, she started attending every week.

Junnawatt was first interviewed at LSTC during the 2016-17 academic year. She was experiencing the United States, and its Christian majority, for the first time, and said, “Everything I learn, I keep thinking how can I apply it at home, to my context there?”

Before coming to LSTC, Junnawatt had attended a university in Thailand, thinking she would go into tourism. Then, she tried her hand at marketing for a fashion company but found it unfulfilling. Her mother had supported her all along in her education, even when she announced she wanted to serve the church. She got an MDiv in Thailand, and while finishing her degree there met Pongsak Limthongviratn, who encouraged her to apply for the International Leadership Program through ELCA’s global mission unit, where he works.

“If God prepared the way, I decided I will go,” she said when first interviewed at LSTC. “I am just an ordinary girl so this was the miracle of my life. Because of God, it became possible.”

Junnawatt also found a second home at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Chruch in Forest Park, where Limthonviratn is also pastor.

She received her ThM in 2017 from LSTC and now her PhD in 2022, filled with gratitude to her advisor, Mark Swanson: “He was the one who never ceases to support me. I had a very hard time to work on my dissertation during the pandemic era and I think could not graduate without the great support from my advisor, as well as Gloria [Vicente] in the advanced studies department, JKM and my dissertation committee. Also the ELCA and the leadership program.”

One advanced degree in a student’s native language is challenging enough. So this was anything but easy—“reading, writing, speaking at an academic level, while still struggling to learn the language,” she said. She gave credit to learning partners who helped her succeed, and even for her job in the mailroom that kept her practicing English and meeting people: “I get to see everyone.”

Now, her students get to see her as she fulfills her dream to return to teach church history in her home country. After six years in Chicago, leaving was bittersweet, she said. She had missed her homeland, but now also misses her second home of Hyde Park—even snow and winter.   


(Updated from an original story in the Winter/Spring 2017 Epistle magazine; written by Julie B. Sevig)

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