1. You’re a Fulbright Scholar – receiving one of the most widely recognized and prestigious
scholarships in the world. Only about 20% of applicants win the award. What was your
path to receiving this incredible honor?
I think that all the hard work I had done over the past years finally paid off. The path was no doubt challenging for me. More often than not, winning a scholarship award is competitive for students. I believe that two of many important factors might have greatly determined my winning of this scholarship. The first and foremost important factor in winning this scholarship award would be a good record of working experiences for the communities I have done for years. Not only do these experiences show what I am passionate about, what I value, and who I am in society, but they also represent what changes I would like to bring to or achieve for the communities and the country as a whole in the future.
Secondly, the preparation phase to take language proficiency tests was also another big challenge for me when hunting for this scholarship. Both TOEFL and GRE tests were required for this scholarship. The time coincided with the Covid pandemic so there were no in-person classes available in my hometown and the country. Likewise, my country was facing political chaos that caused internet disruption and negatively affected my study. Either way of online or in-person study was hard for me during preparation. Thus I had to rely only on limited resources and greatly focused on self-studies. After all the hard work that I put in during such a stressful time, I successfully passed all required phases and achieved the scholarship award.
2. You have a hugely interesting track record. Tell us about your work for the UN and some NGOs prior to arriving at USC.
I worked as the durable solutions associate at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have been displaced by the armed conflicts in Kachin State, Myanmar. Concerted efforts always mattered in the process of seeking a solution supposed to be durable for IDP communities. I worked closely with local partner organizations, other INGOs, CSOs and UN agencies to help formulate evidence-informed interventions for IDPs. The processes were always challenging because in most cases they were required to start from scratch. After over a decade of protracted displacement, all infrastructures were dilapidated and some were destroyed during the fighting. Lack of public services, basic infrastructures and little or no involvement of armed actors relatively compounded by the absence of a resettlement policy for IDPs were always big barriers for us in the processes.
On one hand, many IDPs no longer want to stay in the cramped IDPs camps after the decade-long displacement, so they would rather take risks either to return to their places of origin or seek an alternative solution such as local integration into a new place or resettlement elsewhere across the state. Having said that, safety and security concerns due to potential arrests or forced recruitment by armed actors or other landmines or explosives always exist for them in the process.
In such circumstances, I ensured that IDPs were well informed to be able to make voluntary decisions, developed protection safety measures in collaboration with them in the process and improved the conditions of the grounds and the safety of IDPs with all relevant stakeholders. I had to work to obtain accurate and reliable information through assessments and consultation both with IDPs and all relevant actors. As a result, we successfully facilitated up to 1000 IDP households during my employment. In 2021 alone, I facilitated more than 400 IDP households in the northern Kachin State despite a slow process and tons of challenges.
Before I joined UNHCR, I worked as the outreach officer at the rule of law projects of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) to promote justice for the communities in Kachin State, Myanmar between 2015 and 2017 for three years. I organized a series of outreach events and legal discussions on local justice issues such as land issues, violence against women and drugs by bringing justice providers such as lawyers and relevant government officials including Myanmar police forces, as well as INGOs, CSOs and communities to find constructive recommendations for the policy development. As the outreach officer, I led the referral system for communities who faced legal issues and brought justice to them during my employment. The experience gained from this work tells me a lot that it is not easy to make effective advocacy or a policy change, especially when engaging with authorities who are reluctant to engage but rather want to protect their interest.
I also worked as the township activity manager for the Myanmar Council of Churches Community Based Malaria Prevention and Control Project between 2012 and 2015. I led the project activities in collaboration with Township Health Department, village administrators and voluntary health workers in more than 28 hard-to-reach villages for vulnerable communities that suffered from malaria diseases. Some families lost their members to the disease while some lived with permanent brain damage caused by malaria. We implemented several activities such as diagnosis, mosquito net treatments with insecticides, distribution of long-lasting insecticide nets and health education to communities. As a result, when I left the project, there were no more malaria mortalities and positive cases were very rare in my community as the villagers had a habit to do timely treatments and use mosquito nets.
3. So, we hear you speak multiple languages – what was easiest to learn? Will you use them in future social work experiences - how?
English, Burmese (the national language of Myanmar) and Kachin (my mother tongue) are languages I know. I also speak Lachid and Lhao Vo languages (languages of Kachin tribes) but not in four skills.
Language is key not only for communicating with clients from different backgrounds but also for building trust with them. In a country like Myanmar, an ethnically diverse country, being able to speak a local language is always a good asset when communicating with our clients. Based on my local context, people from different ethnicity prefer communicating with service providers in their language. Also, language barriers could be reduced in this way so that clients can share their issues freely and more accurately in their language and it helps us build trust with clients. Building trust with clients becomes easier if we speak a common language because I think that clients feel closer to those who speak their language compared to others.
4. We understand you hail from Myanmar. How has your journey led to Columbia?
The University of South Carolina was one of four universities listed for me by the scholarship’s placement team. Since I am interested in the macro level of social work based on my past working experiences and what I would like to achieve in the future, I believed that USC was the best place for me to pursue my academic career goals. USC offers a specialization track in community, social and economic development and courses such as advanced analysis of social policy, advanced theory of social work practice, crisis intervention, nonprofit leadership and social welfare policies. I believe that these courses offered at the College of Social Work are highly relevant to what I have done and will boost my future professional career. The University of South Carolina also has a lot of faculty members and professors who have real-world experience working for nonprofit organizations and who have professional expertise in working with refugees’ rights, humanitarian aid, food insecurity, international development and international migration as well as durable solutions for refugees.
5. Future social work plans. What’s in store for you?
As a short-term goal I will continue working more vigorously for IDPs in collaboration with humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR and local organizations to help IDPs access better public services. I remain convinced that concerted efforts for advocacy are important and I will be working persistently on advocacy too. I remember that we also achieved the initial involvement of the armed actors in demining activities at several solutions villages in 2020. Likewise, I will continue helping IDPs build a stronger community by empowering IDPs and facilitating in setting up of an effective problem-coping mechanism in collaboration with them in the process. Such a community-based approach will improve their perspectives on the importance of inclusiveness and participation in decision-making and leading role in their new community in the future.
For the long-term goal, I will further advocate key stakeholders such as the Myanmar military and the government on IDPs issues in collaboration with UN agencies, INGOs, local CSOs, policymakers and communities until Myanmar develops a strong policy for IDPs in line with global humanitarian principles and human rights at the state and national level. I intend to alleviate human suffering from such conflicts as Myanmar has a long history of armed conflicts, and it is also currently suffering from the most escalating conflicts across the country resulting in millions of people being internally displaced.