As Myanmar (formerly Burma) emerges from decades of military dictatorship, the scramble is on among young Burmese to educate themselves so that they might take advantage of the economic growth that is already transforming the country.
Myint Myint Maw is acutely aware of the advantages that education can bring: she was one of the few children lucky enough to complete their high school education in the village of Popa near the ancient, pagoda-dotted city of Bagan; and she emerged from university a few years later with an engineering degree.
But the most valuable currency for young people wishing to improve their economic prospects in this fast-changing, opportunity-laden country is English. Hopeful of capitalising on this, language schools have started popping up overnight in major cities all over Myanmar; often unaffiliated, they compete among themselves for the precious funds that parents are willing to spend on their children’s education.
But the Jesuits have long anticipated the importance of English as a means for advancement among the people of Myanmar. The Campion English Institute was established in Yangon in 2003, and in the time since has transformed the lives of young Myanmar students like Maw through the provision of high-level English courses. The institute is one of several projects in Myanmar which are funded entirely by Jesuit Mission.
‘I was a teacher while I was in university because my parents couldn’t support me, so I had to support myself’, explains Maw.
‘In 2007 I graduated and I went to Yangon to work as an engineer. But the salary was very low. Fortunately I got a scholarship from my former teacher and so I studied English at Campion.’
For almost two years Maw lived in the hostel at Campion and diligently attended class, becoming so fluent in English she was able to volunteer as a teacher at the institute, instructing students who had enrolled in its health program. Far from her village, she felt that she’d found a new home.
‘Oh, Campion is like a family! You feel a sense of family: everybody’s very friendly, the teachers are very friendly, unlike the other schools. The other schools are like a business. The students have tension and are competing but in Campion it’s not like that – it’s very friendly and relaxed and very happy. That’s why I like it’, she says.
‘In Campion I had to speak English and so I developed a lot. I was very relaxed in Campion; when I’m very comfortable with my friends and the teachers, it’s very easy to speak English.’
Today, Maw’s Campion classmates are working as hotel receptionists, as teachers, in jobs at the British Council, and at the many corporations that are setting up office in Myanmar. Maw herself spent two years after graduation teaching English to Grade 6 and Grade 7 students at a small learning centre in Yangon. During this time she stayed with sisters from the Faithful Companions of Jesus. The relationship that developed between this devout young Buddhist and the Catholic sisters opened up another opportunity for her when the sisters awarded her a scholarship to study community development at the Asian Social Institute in Manila in the Philippines. While there, Maw spent time caring for abandoned babies, and developed a desire to do something meaningful when she returned home. This year she will open a pre-school for children in her village of Popa.
‘I was not a patient person before, but when I went to Manila and I worked with them for nine months I began to love the babies, and I learned to be patient’, she explains.
‘Before I went to Manila I said to the sisters, “As soon as I come back to Myanmar I will go back to my place to serve the people”. That’s why I am bringing that desire and value to my place.’
Support the work of the Jesuits in Myanmar and other countries around the world through Jesuit Mission, at www.jesuitmission.org.au.
By Catherine Marshall