Fair Pitches US Universities to Burma’s Young People

By Yen Saning 14 February 2014

RANGOON — Though challenges involving academic qualifications and financing loom large, education officials from the United States are optimistic that more Burmese students will take advantage of growing opportunities to enroll at American universities in the coming years.

Representatives from more than 30 institutions of higher learning were in Burma this week for the US University Fair in Rangoon, where participants sought to lure more Burmese students to study in the United States.

The second annual fair was sponsored by EducationUSA, an education network supported by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which provides information to students internationally on how to study at US colleges and universities.

Erik Eisele, cultural affairs officer at the US Embassy in Rangoon, said there was learning to be done on both sides of the educational exchange between US universities and Burmese students.

“They [the universities] understand increasingly the Myanmar system of matriculation exams— that was another issue, with the age of Myanmar graduates. But our universities are learning about that. They are encouraging Myanmar students to come,” he said.

Eisele’s reference to graduates’ age relates to the fact that for the average Burmese student considering a university in the United States, the hurdles begin with the fundamental structure of Burma’s secondary schooling system.

“Qualifications are difficult,” acknowledged Susan Strow, the assistant director of international admissions at Columbia College Chicago. “Traditionally, to get into university, you need 12 years of high school. In Burma, they only go up to 10 years. It’s a big problem.

“I think there are some schools that are starting up right now that offer those two-year American degree programs,” she told The Irrawaddy, describing a kind of pre-college program for students who did not receive a 12-year primary/secondary education, which could go some way toward bridging the qualifications gap.

Eisele said that another challenge for students was gathering information on the thousands of US universities that they could potentially apply to.

“That’s why we are having this university fair,” he added. “A lot of the universities here are from cities and towns that maybe Myanmar students are unfamiliar with. They are here very, very eager to accept Myanmar students. Several universities even have scholarships dedicated to Myanmar students.”

The US Embassy official admitted that the process of researching and applying to these schools could be daunting.

“There are over 4,000 universities in the US and all of them have different requirements for entrance,” he said. “For instance, I know for community college, some of them require TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language], some of them don’t. They may have other ways of testing English and we know that Burmese/Myanmar students have great success getting into those once they apply.”

Aung Hein Htet attended the fair this week with his eyes set on prospects for a US post-secondary education.

“It is my dream to study abroad and I want to study engineering there [in the United States]. I want to earn a bachelor’s degree,” Aung Hein Htet said.

The freshman engineering student at Yangon Technological University (YTU) said he was confident that he could meet US universities’ testing requirements, but expressed concern over his ability to afford tuition if admitted.

“Though I want to go, I can only make it with a scholarship. I can’t afford it with 100 percent my own funding. So I am also inquiring about scholarships, but so far, the offers here are not enough,” Aunt Hein Htet said. “Tuition fees at universities I want to go to are about US$30,000 in general per year. Some even $40,000.”

For the vast majority of Burmese students, US universities’ “sticker price” (the cost of tuition, room and board, and fees, before any financial assistance is provided) is well beyond their families’ means.

But Eisele, from the US Embassy, said he believed that ordinary Burmese students would be able to attend universities in the United States with the financial assistance packages that many institutions offer.

“Certainly, finances are an issue, but US universities are very generous in offering scholarships and grants. There are literally hundreds of thousands of opportunities. The question is how to find out about them. And I think once Myanmar students find out about some of those grant and scholarship opportunities, not just through the embassy but in other ways, they go a long way toward financing.”

“I think the first step is for college admissions advisors and counselors who are here to go back to their institutions and just let them know about the students they’ve seen in Burma,” said Strow. “And hopefully trying to find out about funds available to offer additional scholarships for those students who might have a little more need. I think this is important. I think it is also about diversifying the campus.”

May Palè Thwe, an English-language trainer and founder of the Smile Education Training Institute based in Rangoon, said Burma’s education system had some way to go in preparing students to meet the standards required to attend internationally accredited universities.

“Apparently, teaching systems and curricula in government [high] schools [in Burma] are being revised to catch up to international standards. This must provide student-centered learning objectives, while at the same time we have to try to build up teachers’ capacity to meet international standards.”

She said those preparations should include English proficiency skills and more training on the post-secondary entrance exams required for US universities and community colleges.

“For Burmese students to earn internationally recognized, professionally specialized majors that are in demand [from employers] right after they graduate from high school, lots of preparation is needed.”

Eisele advised Burmese students who want to study in the United States to seek assistance from EducationUSA.

“We have an EducationUSA office here. EducationUSA does have general information about the [student] visa and they do provide what we call pre-departure orientation. So, the students want to sign up with Education USA. They are able to get pre-departure orientation, which walks them through the steps of how to study in the United States.

“It starts at the beginning with finding out about universities, then about financing, applying, student visas and actually departing to the United States.”