Last year, we brought you an interview with 2010-11 Boston Schweitzer Fellow Meredith Walsh—a University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Nursing student who spent her Fellowship year working to improve the health of refugee youth from Burma living in Worcester (and who is now the executive director of the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project (WRAP), which she helped to launch as a Schweitzer Fellow).
Now, 2011-12 Boston Schweitzer Fellow Nang Maung is dedicating herself to expanding on what Walsh set in motion. Maung—a native of Burma and a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences—is leading literacy, spoken English, and homework help classes focused on issues of survival and adjustment in the U.S. She’s also working to develop leaders from within this refugee community by training the teens to lead future ESL classes themselves.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
I am a native of Burma and came to the U.S. at age 17 for college. When I got connected to the community of refugees from Burma living in Worcester and heard about their struggles, everything felt so close to my heart. I remembered the challenges I faced as a newcomer and the friends and support networks that helped me through.
I would say that I had first-hand experience, but that would not be very accurate: I arrived to the U.S much more prepared than the refugees that my project is serving. I grew up in the most developed city in Burma and had the privilege of an uninterrupted education (if I didn’t count the one-year off during kindergarten due to a political uprising), whereas they had spent many years in refugee camps and many of them didn’t know how to read. I have found myself lost and frustrated as I navigated through life in the U.S., but I at least had enough English skills to ask for help. My personal experiences (and blessings that I’ve learned to appreciate more) made me realize the extent of challenges the refugees are facing in their new home, and I was determined to help make their transitions a little easier.
I started volunteering with the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project (WRAP) as a family mentor. That meant I was visiting some families regularly and helping them read their mail, schedule appointments, call landlords, and communicate with the children’s school. After a while, I realized that I could make a greater impact if I helped them gain the language skills and confidence to do all of those things by themselves—so I started organizing and teaching English classes with other WRAP volunteers. I applied for a Schweitzer Fellowship to continue teaching English with focused topics on different life skills. In addition to the language, I wanted to help them find and utilize all the resources available to them.
I also noticed that there were a lot of dreams and expectations for the younger generation within the community. The youth themselves were adjusting to a new country, and while they have a lot of potential, they were unsure about how to handle the pressure and responsibilities. I wanted to help different generations understand each other’s challenges better, and designed my project to include training of the teenagers as future leaders.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I hope that my project would help build a stronger community in which members not only help each other, but also feel comfortable to seek outside help when needed. I also wish to help connect the community to other organizations and service programs in the area so that the learning process can continue beyond my Fellowship.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
I can think of a few issues depending on the situation and parts of the world we’re talking about. But coming from a country where many basic human rights are violated because of political and economic reasons, I’d say we need a more equal access to education, health information, and care on a global scale. I am interested in public health and infectious diseases, and would like to see many diseases eradicated worldwide. But it will remain a dream in a world where a lot of vaccines are too expensive, school becomes a luxury for poor families, and local governments get away with concealing disease burdens in their countries.
Inequality is a hard issue to tackle, but we can certainly make progress with a global vision, commitment and follow-through. Every professional should be encouraged to think about how a decision might affect different populations around the world. International communities should be able to recognize and hold local governments accountable when accurate health information cannot be assessed. I believe being aware of disparities and encouraging/ensuring improvement at a local level is an important first step in addressing this pressing issue.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
Burma is home to many ethnic groups (Karen, Kayah, Chin, Shan, etc), with Burmese being the majority. Although they blend together and speak Burmese in bigger cities, each ethnic group has its own language and location. I expected some differences among ethnic groups, and yet I was surprised by the very diverse educational and cultural backgrounds within the community. I do not share a language with many people in the community even though we are all from Burma. And when we shared our experiences and certain traditions “back home,” it sounded as though we came from different countries. This experience is a good reminder of the dangers in making assumptions and stereotypes of a given community.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
I am honored to be in this amazing network of Schweitzer Fellows. It is humbling and inspiring to learn about other Fellows’ passions, project ideas and their commitment to making the world around them a healthier place. Being a Schweitzer Fellow means that I am learning to look at the world through different lenses and realize how comprehensive “health” is; pretty much every issue affects health and vice versa. I see this Fellowship as an excellent opportunity to develop personally and professionally and make a meaningful difference in a community. Most importantly, this Fellowship experience will remind me to always make an effort to serve despite other demands of life.
Nang Maung is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Maung it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Maung’s efforts to empower Worcester’s refugee youth, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.