Yonladee "Ploy" Phiyatat, pictured above at the Marano Campus Center, had to fight every step of the way to make it to the SUNY Oswego GENIUS Olympiad, being held this week. Phiyatat was rendered stateless by virtue of her Myanmarese descent and current residence in Thailand and needed the intervention of advocates across the globe to secure a visa out of the country.

Once denied citizenship by Thai government, Ploy Phiyatat chases dream of scientific achievement

Editor’s note: Some quotes in the following story have been edited for length and clarity.

OSWEGO — Hundreds of high school students from across the globe are gathered at SUNY Oswego this week to present their environmentally conscious academic projects at the ninth annual GENIUS Olympiad.

The Global Environmental Issues U.S. (GENIUS) Olympiad this year received 1,657 submissions of projects from around the world. Kyrgyzstan, with 117, submitted the most. University officials and event organizers then curated a list of 789 finalists who were scheduled to visit the Port City from the week of June 17 to 22. 

For some students, the GENIUS Olympiad symbolizes a competition as much as it symbolizes a journey.

“(Students) inspire us with stories about their research and creativity to make the world a better, more healthy and sustainable place, and with the efforts they and their supporters have undertaken to make the journey to Oswego," SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley said. 

Newly naturalized Thai citizen Yonladee “Ploy” Phiyatat, who was formerly one of hundreds of thousands of stateless people in Thailand, was one of the finalists who were eligible to compete at the olympiad.

However, Phiyatat, 17, had the herculean task of obtaining a travel visa to visit Oswego and was denied on numerous occasions because of her status as a stateless resident of Thailand.

“In Thailand, if you are born there but you come from a different nationality, you are not a citizen,” Plhiyatat said during the opening day of the olympiad, explaining that while she was born in Ranong, Thailand, her family is originally from Myanmar. “That means I am one of a stateless people and it has not allowed me to come here,” she said.

Phiyatat is one of 487,000 stateless people registered by the Thai government in 2019, according to the United Nations Refugee Center. She grew up attending Thai schools and currently goes to Satree Ranong School, where she said she is focusing on her intensive science courses.

“When I was young, I was very interested in learning English and science,” she said. “I learned about these things because I hoped someday I might come here or another country for a competition like this. It has always been my dream to do something like this.” 

Her current aspirations, Phiyatat detailed, are to help with growing concerns of recycling and other environmental issues. 

Her project presented during the event, appropriately named the “Automatic Machine for Bottle Classification,” aims to classify bottles based on their material composition and place them in their proper bins, she said.

“In today’s world we are starting to realize the importance of recycling,” Phiyatat said. “We are not accustomed to the individuals bins we use for plastics cans and bottles. This system sorts the rubbish for the consumer. It is a very small idea for us to save the world, but it is better than just sitting down and doing nothing.” 

Phiyatat’s dream garnered significant support when her project won a national award, turning heads across Thailand.

The Office of Basic Education Commission (OBEC) — an organization that promotes elementary to high school education in Thailand — got behind Phiyatat’s case.

“We cannot guarantee she will get Thai citizenship, but we will ensure she receives all the opportunities she can,” OBEC secretary-general Boonlux Yodpheth told Thai publication The Nation in May.

An article from The Nation also details how other educators and advocates were quick to lend a hand to help Phiyatat realize her dream.

“I am ready to pay for her trip and be her sponsor for the U.S. visa,” Rukthai Prurapark, a lecturer at Srinakharinwirot University in Thailand told The Nation in May.

After months of trying and missing the deadline for citizenship applications set for May 1, Phiyatat announced on a Facebook post on May 10 she had received a letter from a Thai official saying she qualified for Thai citizenship after being approved on a case-by-case basis.

“I got very excited when they told me I was a Thai citizen and I was able to come to the competition,” she said. “I couldn’t express how grateful I am in words.” 

GENIUS Olympiad founder and SUNY Oswego Chemistry Department Chair Fehmi Damkaci said the university answered the call and tried to help expedite Phiyatat’s U.S. visa process.

“We worked with her legal team to move her status and visa application issue forward as fast as possible to make sure that she could attend,” Damkaci said. “We are happy that she made it to GENIUS Olympiad to be part of our program."

Once she was able to apply for her U.S. visa, Phiyatat said the state was able to provide for her and other Thai competitors. 

“This is my opportunity to show that I am interested in science,” she said. “Many people here it is like their dream. I competed with many other schools in Thailand and I had to fight to come here.”

Though winning would be nice, Phiyatat said, doing her best and sending a message to others in her situation is the goal.

“Everyone here wants to win, but I just want to do my best,” she said. “I want to send a message to people, not just stateless children. They can help conserve our environment. This is about everyone, it’s not just for stateless people or Thai citizens.”

The GENIUS Olympiad closing ceremonies will be held today at 1:30 p.m. in the Marano Campus Center Arena.

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