Adul Samon, a high school student instrumental in Thai cave rescue depicted in “Thirteen Lives” received a scholarship for Cornell's Precollege Studies program. Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

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Student instrumental in Thai cave rescue receives scholarship

Meet Precollege student Adul Samon

For over 60 years, Cornell’s Precollege Studies programs have offered motivated high school students the chance to study on campus or online with Cornell faculty and get a taste of an Ivy League education.

Notable alumni include actress Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame; Marci Klein, the Emmy Award-winning producer of shows including 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live; and U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer.

Another such remarkable alumnus is Adul Samon, who came to campus for six weeks last summer to study biology and take a personal essay course. Adul was one of 12 boys who, along with their soccer coach, were trapped in a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018. Their dramatic rescue was recently made into the film Thirteen Lives, directed by Ron Howard. Adul was instrumental in the rescue effort because, as the only English speaker in the group, he was able to effectively communicate with divers and relay vital information to his teammates, which helped them survive the almost two-week ordeal.

Adul has been honored for his role in the successful rescue mission with various awards and honors, including a Provost Scholarship from Cornell to attend the 2022 Precollege Studies Summer Program tuition-free.

“We’re so thankful that students like Adul join us in person or online, not only to support their academic ambitions but to enrich our classrooms and community,” said Jim Schechter, director of Cornell’s Precollege Studies. “His participation reflects Cornell’s global reach and the principle of equitable access that shapes Precollege Studies’ student recruitment practices. It’s just so satisfying to see Adul’s success in a rigorous course and speaks volumes about our young students’ promise.”

Adul shared some of his experiences in the Precollege Studies Summer Program with Cornell’s School of Continuing Education (SCE). (The interview is edited for length and clarity.)

SCE: You recently came from Thailand to go to an American boarding school. What grade are you currently in and which school are you attending?

Adul: I am a senior, and I go to The Masters School, located in Dobbs Ferry, New York. 

SCE: I understand that The Masters School helped bring you to Cornell this summer by paying for your room and board and the university awarded you a Provost Scholarship to cover your tuition.

Adul: Yes. I am so lucky and so thankful for everything that has come into my life. After my experience, I have received so many life-changing opportunities. This summer I was able to come to Cornell and take a molecular biology course and an English course.

SCE: Tell us about your biology course. Your professor for BIOMG 1350: Introduction to Cell and Development, Stephen Jesch, said he was impressed with your engagement level and willingness to dive into challenging materials that were a bit beyond your comfort level as a high school student.

What did you enjoy about taking the course? 

Adul: Following the lectures in class and the assessments were challenging, but biology is my favorite subject, so I basically liked everything about the class. I think science is very fascinating. I got to learn about our cells, tissue, DNA and how we humans develop from a baby to grown people.

SCE: Beyond academics, it sounds like you got to know the Cornell community and Ithaca a bit. Aoise Stratford, your English professor for ENGL 1132: Personal Essay, said, “The class was a pretty tight group, the students were really supportive and friendly—none more than Adul. We walked down to Ithaca Falls for our second last class since many of my students were from out of town or from other countries. I wanted them to at least see one of our waterfalls before they went home again.”

Adul: I walked to the waterfalls several times—they’re absolutely gorgeous. I also fell in love with being on the Cornell campus. It took me at least fifteen minutes to walk to my classes from my dorm, but I never got tired of doing that every morning. One thing that was especially valuable to me was how big the international community is at Cornell. I always felt connected and welcomed.

SCE: You had an incredible event happen to you where you were one of the students trapped in a cave. Did any of your classmates here know about what had happened to you?

Adul: I don’t think so, I am not positive anyone recognized me. 

SCE: Laura Danforth, the headmaster of your high school, said she remembered watching along with the world on CNN your incredible rescue and your part in it. She was impressed by your ability to communicate with the British divers that found your group and your concern for the other boys’ health and well-being—putting their safety concerns first. “I knew right then and there,” she said, “we needed to find him and bring him to The Masters School.” She along with a Masters School and Cornell alumni, Clay Lifflander, ’84, MBA ’86, spent four months to make the connection and bring you to the school.

Adul: The biggest change in my life, by far, has been the opportunity to study at The Masters School in the U.S. My experience connected me to Ms. Danforth and Mr. and Mrs. Lifflander who worked together to bring me to Cornell and gave me these life-changing opportunities. Thanks to their generosity, I am now finishing my senior year at The Masters School.

SCE: What are some other experiences you’ve had?

Adul: I’ve also been able to travel to many places such as England, where all 13 of us and our parents were invited to watch a Manchester United game. And we were welcomed to Japan, where we visited children and the elderly who were in the hospital who needed support and inspiration. I also was able to visit many other countries such as Argentina and Brazil. Humbly, in 2019, I was awarded The Global Citizen’s Award by Laurie Patton, the president of  Middlebury College.

SCE: Did you know anything about Cornell before you came to the summer Precollege program?

Adul: I spent the majority of my life in Thailand and I am naturally connected and assimilated with Thai culture. (I was born in Myanmar but was sent to a church orphanage in Thailand when I was around three years old.) Being culturally Thai, I knew that the Thai princess was a Cornell student. It inspired my interest in coming to the Cornell summer program.

SCE: Was there anything from your extraordinary experience that helped you or gave you perspective while you were here at Cornell?

Adul: It gave me a perspective of how crucial education is. I was the one who spoke English with the first two British divers who found us in the cave. With that little knowledge of English, I have been blessed with opportunities and experiences that have brought me to the U.S. and to Cornell.

SCE: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to apply to Cornell or other colleges here in the States?

Adul: My plan is to go to college in the U.S. And yes, I’ll definitely apply to Cornell! I want to deepen my science literacy and further my knowledge about biology. I am proud to say that I will be the first generation of my family going to college. Studying at Cornell this summer was a dream come true. 

To learn more about Cornell’s Precollege Studies Programs, visit the website here.

Visit SCE News for more stories on programs offered by Cornell's School of Continuing Education.

Shelley Preston is the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions’ communications and marketing specialist.

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