Siriporn Tantipoonwinai: Dialogue with an Adventist educational leader in Thailand

Dr. Siriporn (or Dr. Tan, as she is known by her friends outside Thailand) is not a tall person. But that has not prevented her from reaching high into circles of influence and leadership in ways that are rarely heard of for an Adventist in a non-Christian society in Asia. A woman of grace, Dr. Siriporn mixes comfortably with royalty and is easily approachable by ordinary parents who have sought her assistance over the years for their children's college education. She is on first-name basis with other educational administrators as well as with ministers and government officials at the highest levels in Thailand. And she has accomplished all this while working for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Dr. Siriporn became an Adventist just before her graduation from nursing at the Bangkok Adventist Hospital in 1965. After serving among tribal peoples in Northeastern Thailand, she moved to Phuket Adventist Hospital, where her leadership abilities were quickly recognized, and she became director of nursing. Following periods of advanced study abroad, she was appointed as vice-president of nursing services at Bangkok Adventist Hospital. In 1996 she was called to be president of Mission College, which comprised the Bangkok Hospital School of Nursing and a small rural campus, two hours north of the city. In 1997 church administrators in Singapore decided to relocate Southeast Asia Union College to Thailand. Since 1998, Dr. Siriporn has had the task of merging three older, quite different, institutions into one new entity, Mission College. The college has rapidly developed into a highly respected international institution of higher education, serving six countries of the Southeast Asia region and the world beyond.

In April 2002, Dr. Siriporn was honored by the Thai Foundation as an Outstanding Citizen of the Year for her contributions to Thai higher education. And in 2003, the General Conference Education Department bestowed on her the Award of Excellence for her leadership in Adventist education.

Dr. Siriporn, tell us a little about your "roots."

I was born into a Buddhist-Confucian Chinese family in Phuket, in southern Thailand. I was the youngest--a late, unexpected arrival. My family came from China just before the turn of the 20th century.

What kind of impact did this have on you?

I grew up largely with older people. They taught me with many pictures and many stories from old China about the philosophy and values of the old time. I was constantly reminded about where we came from. So I grew up with a strong sense of family history. This helped me have not only a confident understanding of myself but also an ability to understand other people.

What kind of school experience did you have?

In our family tradition, young girls were not allowed to leave home to study. So my parents hired a tutor to teach us. Later, I told my parents that I wanted to go out and study. I attended elementary school for four years. My father died as I was finishing. If he had been living when I finished elementary school, I would not have been able to go on to high school. He wanted us all to go back to China.

How did you become a Christian?

One of my uncles, who had studied medicine in Hong Kong, married a lovely, refined Christian woman who came from mainland China. When war broke out, they moved to Phuket. I was influenced a lot by my aunty. She told me stories from the Bible and about our family background. She was a good mother to me, and I was baptized into her church.

Phuket is a tropical paradise destination for many travelers. Why did you move away from there to Bangkok, and why did you study nursing?

I actually wanted to be a teacher, but the doors did not, at first, open in that direction. An Adventist missionary, Dr. Webster, who was a friend of my uncle, suggested that I should apply for the Adventist Nursing School in Bangkok, which I did.

What led you to become an Adventist?

Although I was a baptized Christian, something was still missing. At nursing school, I discussed with many pastors about Sunday and Sabbath and other things. Later, I took Bible studies for about three years with several pastors and finally with Dr. Ethel Nelson. Two weeks before graduation, at age 21, I was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. From then on, it was total commitment to God.

How did you become involved in church work?

When I graduated in 1965, there was a nursing shortage in the United States. Of the 24 who graduated with me, 23 went to the U.S.A., and they asked me why I was not going. Four years previously I made a covenant with the Lord that if I passed the entrance examination and got into nursing school then, I would serve Him. I realized that I had a promise to keep, and I am still keeping it.

And what led you into academics?

While I worked as a nurse, I continued reading and studying and wanted to learn more and more. One day I went to the medical director and told him that although I enjoyed working in the Phuket Hospital, I felt the need for further study. So they sent me overseas to study for my master's degree. Ten years later, they sent me again to complete my doctorate.

In 2002, you were honored as an Outstanding Citizen of the Year. In Thailand, a country with 90 percent Buddhist population, this was quite a distinction for an Adventist. What impact do you think this has had on the public perception of Adventists in Thailand?

In a way, I think the award was for the whole church. There are a lot of good things the Adventist Church does and can offer to society. When I was awarded this honor, people said to me how they wish that educators in high positions in the society would emphasize this idea of service to others. They are impressed that we teach our graduates to think of others more than themselves, to go the second mile. Because of this they have very high respect for the service orientation in our educational system. The award has highlighted the role of our church in Thailand.

For the past two years you have served as the Chair of the Quality Assurance Committee for the Association of Private Higher Education Institutions in Thailand (an association of 57 colleges and universities) and as a committee member of the National Quality Assurance agency. Why were you appointed to these roles?

The association was looking for someone who knew about accreditation. I made known to my friends that Mission College had some experience in this area. The National Council of Education then invited me to make a presentation on the quality assurance criteria used by the Adventist Accrediting Association.

The Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment has now been established as part of the government's educational reform program. I was appointed to serve as one of the 11 committee members to set up the criteria for higher education institutions. Through these contacts, Mission College has gained a lot of respect, and we are viewed as one of the top quality-higher education institutions in the country.

You frequently work with high-profile people and organization's that are not Christian. How do they relate to your Adventist beliefs?

Ninety-nine percent of my government and education contacts are with non-Adventists. One of the high-ranking officials in the Royal Army said to me, "We are very jealous of your God, because you have committed everything to serve Him." They have also observed that Adventists are good people, willing to serve others. Adventists have systems of education and of health care that have very high reputations. Because my colleagues know that I cannot meet with them on Saturday, they graciously change the meeting times to Sunday to accommodate my religious convictions.

You have become a popular speaker on the public speaking circuit at universities and at military colleges and hospitals. What do they hear from you that they don't hear from others?

One of the things in life that I enjoy doing is presenting seminars. And most of my seminars integrate biblical principles. I talk about servant leadership, and this is almost foreign to them because the normal practice in the world is "to be served, not to serve." When I talk about giving yourself for the service of your people or when I speak about not running after position and a name but let a name and position run after you, they think it is something peculiar. Particularly in settings where competition and fighting for position are a strong part of the organizational culture. But they learn something.

Rarely does a woman achieve a senior leadership role in an Adventist college or university. How have you found it being a female leader in a male-dominated church structure--and that, too, in Asia?

Personally, I don't find it difficult. My background has taught me that I am not less than any other person in the world. Male or female, it doesn't matter! My family always told me that if I don't bend my neck down nobody can step on my back. So be sure to walk confidently and straight up all the time. Not higher than others, but not inferior either! If you study well, have a good personal life, are hard-working, truthful and follow virtue, then nobody can step on you. Most of my vice presidents are male. When I work with them I forget that I am female and they are male. There is an important mission to achieve, and our love for God helps us to work together as a team.

What advice would you give to young people today who attend public universities or who want to get involved in public life?

First, we have to know who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe. And we should not lose that identity. Nor should we be afraid of what we believe and what we stand for.

Second, live well, study well, and serve well as befitting God's children. Be a living testimony, and people will respect you.

Interview by Gilbert M. Valentine. Gilbert M. Valentine (Ph. D., Andrews University) is provost and vice president for academic administration at Mission College. He served at Adventist colleges in New Zealand, Pakistan, Great Britain, and Australia before moving to Thailand two years ago. Dr. Siriporn Tan's e-mail: president@missioncollege.edu