Decide who we are

Decide who we are
Balancing act: motherhood and mangoes. Photo by Robert Boscacci ’14
After half a century as a pariah state, Myanmar is opening to the world. People have stories to tell. And they want to shape for themselves what comes next.

It’s a humid August evening in Yangon, Myanmar. At a school run by the Christian Brothers, a local teacher, Yaw Mang—a slightly built man in his mid-20s, dressed in a red polo shirt, and with a wisp of a mustache—is explaining why he is here: at the La Salle English and Computer Center, which gives instruction to high school–age students in language and technical skills. That, and Yaw Mang says, they’re teaching “how we choose to live our future—decide who we are.”

Myanmar, or Burma, is a nation that was a pariah state until 2011; run by a military junta whose human rights abuses brought international sanctions, the country was isolated socially and economically from most of the world. The country began opening up a couple years ago. So an educational endeavor flavored with self-determination is one that comes as the country is amid unique and wrenching changes.

Yaw Mang recalls a startling moment when, as a student here, he was asked a question that left him at a loss: “‘What do I think?’” Until then education had meant rote memorization. The question led, he says, to bigger questions about self and the world: “Why am I here? Did I see God today? In the classroom? On the bus?”

Shwedagon Pagoda: Buddhist monks welcome Joseph Alexander-Short ’14. Photo by Robert Boscacci ’14

That epiphany is part of a film by a pair of Santa Clara students, Joe Alexander-Short ’14 and Robert Boscacci ’14, who journeyed to Myanmar in summer 2013 to learn for themselves about the school and to help tell the stories of its students and teachers. Hours of interviews and scenes from the school and students’ homes form the short film De La Salle in Myanmar, finished in January.

The project was undertaken with a sense of a sea change taking place. “Myanmar’s economy is expected to quadruple in 15 years,” Boscacci says. Equipping students from poor families with skills needed to work in a growing tourism industry, and to become managers, provides them more control over their economic destiny.

But it’s not all economics. Alexander-Short, a religious studies major who is minoring in political science, proposed the project. The work, he said, drove home the moral imperatives at play where corruption and new images of individualism proliferate: “If you don’t make choices, someone else is going to choose for you.”

Working: in the rice patty delta. Photo by Robert Boscacci ’14

Alexander-Short was drawn to Myanmar by a longtime family friend, Brother Mark Murphy, FSC, who for years directed the Christian Brothers’ work in Myanmar. Through SCU’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, a Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship funded the project. The Donovan fellowship program was established in 2000, and students compete for community-based projects of five to seven weeks in length anywhere in the world.

This wasn’t Alexander-Short’s first time taking advantage of the global opportunities SCU offers: He was part of an immersion trip led by the Ignatian Center to Peru in 2012. He was also a varsity soccer player, but he made the tough decision not to play last fall and instead spent it at SCU’s Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador.


For the camera: outside Peik Chin Myaung cave. Photo by Robert Boscacci ’14

In Myanmar last September, Lisa McMonagle ’15 walked on water. Along Inle Lake, a highland lake about halfway between the city of Mandalay and the Thai border, villagers grow food on the water’s surface: atop veritable floating pieces of land, made by weaving underwater plants together to form garden beds in shallow water along the shore. Farmers tend beds by boat, walking out onto the plant-infused water surface to pick tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Standing out there, McMonagle said, felt like being atop a surfboard: “Tilt and sink, wavering, unbalanced.”

A political science and environmental studies major, McMonagle traveled with 10 other SCU students and three advisors to Myanmar to learn about food security and the environment. It’s one of several immersion trips run by the Food and Agribusiness Institute within the Leavey School of Business. The institute, which has its roots in the Santa Clara Valley’s storied agricultural history as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight,” recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

In McMonagle’s studies, she pursues a curricular pathway titled Food, Hunger, Poverty, and Environment, which looks at interrelationships among these subjects. That leads to questions like: How do you grow and distribute food where resource availability and income may be low and where food production may harm the environment? Inle Lake’s ingenious gardens are immune to flooding after deluges of rain because the plants’ root structures, submerged in nutrient-rich water, rise and fall with the surface water level. However, villagers also fish, propelling their boats by “leg rowing” (as seen on this issue’s cover), a traditional method unknown outside Myanmar. But there are trade-offs: As gardens expand, open water for fishing has decreased by more than 30 percent.

Students learned the impact that microfinance loans have made on the lives of more than 200 women entrepreneurs. They began to come to grips with the enormous challenges that are part of democratizing and less government control—such as painful ethnic and religious tensions that have pitted Buddhists and Muslims against one another in recent years and that have led to riots and killings. But students also took inspiration from visiting the house where Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was kept for many years under house arrest. Since 2012, Suu Kyi has held a seat in parliament. And she knows too well the tendency that people have, out of fear, to look for scapegoats. “I’ve always tried to explain that democracy is not perfect,” Suu Kyi has said. “But it gives you a chance to shape your own destiny.”

Want to talk to someone about supporting cool programs like these? For Donovan fellowships, call Michael Nuttall at 408-554-2747. For FAI, call Erika French at 408-554-5173.

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