Back in 2009, a few folk here in Ranong dreamed that Burmese migrants here, cut off from almost every aspect of the modern world, could get a university qualification. It was just a dream. Seeing the Australian Catholic University (ACU)’s Thai-Burma border refugee programme in action in the north of Thailand, gave this dream some hope of fulfillment.
ACU provides students from Myanmar who have been displaced from their country, and therefore excluded from any opportunity for higher education, the opportunity to gain an ACU diploma. Courses are taught by professors from Universities in Australia, the USA and Canada – usually through various online learning tools, but sometimes in person in Ranong. The invitation to be the on-site tutors for this programme that brought us back to Ranong in 2010.
It seems like ages ago, we arrived here – just the two of us with the third one safely stowed in Nuala’s belly. Our students we excited, nervous and apprehensive.
It seems like a limetime ago (indeed it was almost Felicity’s whole lifetime ago!) that we were just starting out- and now here we all were, getting all dressed up for graduation!
Though several of the students are actually older than us, we did feel a bit like proud parents getting ready to accompany our little charges on that final step out of our care. Filled with joy and pride, of course but with a hint of sadness and a twinge of relief that there weren’t any calamities on our watch!
With a cohort of professors from ACU in Sydney leading the way, we gleefully joined the ranks of the ‘important people’ on stage. I’m pretty sure that I, with my lowly single undergrad degree, am the least qualified person to have ever been clad in the regal garb of university academic staff.
The highlight for most of the 200-strong crowd in attendance was, unsurprisingly, my speech. I used this final opportunity to lecture the students on the significance of their achievement by using an analogy they could all understand – a building. I reminded them that while their Diploma was the foundation for their families’ and communities’ future, the strength of the foundation came from the ground on which it was built – their values, their culture, their faith.
For me, however, the highlight was unquestionably the graduate speech delivered powerfully by Francis. He spoke with a wonderfully strong and simple gratefulness for the gift of education he had received. He talked of his determination to use his skills, talents and energy to serve the young people of Burma. Most striking of all, he spoke like a man who had learnt so much, that he realized how much he still has to learn and was excited about it.
As joyful and satisfying as it was to see our students graduate and make their plans for their next few steps in life, it was just a bit sad to see our motley gang scatter down the various paths they have chosen. We’re not sure about our own plans for the new year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see our old students again back in Burma or beyond.