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Education leads to bright future for Myanmar’s young people

MANDALAY UCAN): Around 130 Catholic young people in Mandalay, Myanmar, are benefiting from a new approach to education at a centre set up by Columban Father Neil Magill.
The young people, who are of  Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burmese and Akha ethnicity, come from 10 dioceses and are taking a three-year residential course at the Mandalay Archdiocesan Higher Education Centre(HEC) in the compound of St. John’s Catholic Church in Mandalay. 
The centre was founded in 2010 by Father Magill with the backing Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng, the former archbishop of Mandalay, and began with 36 students. 
It has seven full-time and 10 part-time staff.
Students learn English, computer science, information and computer technology, business administration, accountancy, ethics, social science, human rights, critical thinking and music. They also attend seminars on leadership, interfaith dialogue, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, child protection, conflict resolution and ecology.
Some students teach in Buddhist monastic schools and orphanages on weekends and visit homes for the elderly and a leper colony on exposure programmes.
The centre’s vision is to empower young people to be mature and responsible parents and citizens by becoming leaders locally and nationally, teachers, advocates and development workers, and educated parents for the common good of the country and the Church.
Students must pass the 10th standard (matriculation exam) to apply for the programme through parish priests and then sit an entrance exam and oral test.
Father Magill was motivated to establish the centre after realising that many young people in Myanmar were struggling in life and had difficulty in finding jobs.
He said education is very important and young people can support their families, serve the community and help the country by garnering skills and knowledge.
“Education (are the) building blocks for their bright future and it’s a foundation towards a democratic society,” Father Magill told said.
The 72-year-old priest, who has been in Myanmar for 12 years, believes the nation’s education system was neglected by the military regime which ruled the country for decades.
His method eschews the system of rote learning by enhancing critical thinking and upgrading teachers’ skills. “We use a holistic approach and train students to have critical thinking, which is very, very important in the country,” he explained.
Father Magill has been impressed with the commitment of young people eager to learn the skills to enhance their future.
As the students come from different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicity, they get a chance to learn traditions and cultures. “It is a multi-ethnic approach and fosters respect and understanding among them,” the priest said.
The HEC has turned out about 250 graduates. Some work at Karuna (Caritas) offices, Church-run boarding schools and non-government organisations. Six are doing further studies in the Philippines and three obtained MBA degrees from a university in Bangkok.
Some graduates are sending funds to the centre by saving money from their salaries and some are rearing pigs and chickens to raise cash.
Thanks to benefactors from Father Magill’s homeland, Ireland, and funding from Church in Need and MISSIO, the HEC can cover food, staff salaries, electricity, Internet and equipment expenses.
The lack of accommodation is a challenge as Father Magill would like to accept more students. For the 2019 to 2020 academic year, it could only accept only 53 out of the 127 students who sat for the entrance exam. “I was sorry to see that some were crying as they didn’t get a chance to join the center,” he said.
A priest from the Archdiocese of Mandalay works as his administrative assistant.
Christina Thiri Soe Moe Oo, a third-year student from Maygon village in Mandalay, said the programme is improving her communication and social skills and helping her to learn about culture.
“Before we joined the centre, our view was that doctors and engineers were the professionals with the best careers. But I have come to know that we need to follow our hearts about what we want to become in our lives,” the 19-year-old said.
Thiri wants to go abroad for further studies to specialise in teaching adults.
Lawrence Zung Hlei Bik from Chin State, who graduated from the HEC in September 2018, said it was a special privilege for him to learn new skills and get the foundation to follow his dreams.
“I’m interested in networking and design drawn by AutoCAD software. And I want to go abroad for further studies if I get a chance,” said Zung Hlei Bik, who works as a volunteer teaching English at the HEC.
Critics have long blamed the former military dictatorship for ignoring Myanmar’s school system.

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