Junior assists locals in Burma

Xenia Viragh ’15 used funds provided by the Gunter-Gross Asia Initiative to get hotspot wi-fi on cell phones for students at Phaung Daw Oo, a school for students of all ages in Mandalay, Burma.

“It’s a monastic center, so it’s not a government school,” Viragh said. “Myanmar is isolated and closed off because it’s been a military dictatorship for over five decades, and because the military didn’t want people rebelling against the system, they made their education system complete rote memorization.”

Though it is not government-affiliated, PDO must adhere to state educational guidelines in order for students to pass the national entrance exams for university education, Viragh said.

The exam is “kind of like the SAT but 70,000 times worse,” Viragh said.

“When they study for their English exams, they chant, and you’d never know they’re speaking English, because they just chant incessantly, but they have no idea what they’re saying or what it means. They have no English language conversational skills.”

Upon completing high school at age 16, many of the students stay at PDO to study and take care of younger students, Viragh said.

“Because there’s not that much time during their high school years to study English as a language and not as a subject, they take English classes from international volunteers,” Viragh said.

The high school graduates worked with Viragh because their English was better and they had more time and flexibility to use the internet, Viragh said.Through interviews with PDO students and teachers, she discovered that they severely lacked English language practice, Viragh said. Also, due to the Burmese government’s imposed isolation, the citizens lack general knowledge about the world, she said.

“The students wanted to learn so much,” Viragh said. “They were all so eager and enthusiastic to learn English, to learn about the world and our culture; so that’s why I thought it would be so fun for them to have a buddy at Harvard-Westlake to interact with once a month.”

Viragh plans to pair students and create a schedule that matches when Phaung Daw Oo students have internet access, as their internet connection is limited.

She used her grant money, which was not provided by the Gunter-Gross Fellowship, to obtain hotspot wi-fi for the students, who can refill their internet cards each month.

“They can Skype in the library with a good connection, so hopefully long-term I help the school get more wi-fi,” Viragh said.

“I see the students there and our students at Harvard-Westlake having friendships and relationships more than just emails, because if you’re trying to learn a language, it’s much easier to practice when you’re face-to-face and can gesture and make up for communication by seeing each other,” Viragh said.

She hopes the project will be long-term, carried on even after she graduates.

“I really hope to support Phaung Daw Oo because it’s an amazing movement, and it’s one of the most respected communities in Myanmar,” Viragh said.

After the Burmese cyclone in 2009, orphans and minorities moved to facilities on campus, Viragh said.

“A lot of the kids go there who live there becauwwse their villages side are outside the city, so if they aren’t housed at schools like Phaung Daw Oo, they immediately start to work after primary education,” Viragh said.

“The school has inspired me to help them,” Viragh said.     “And it’s just a little thing that I’m doing, just trying to provide something, but hopefully by giving exposure to their communities, helping them find more volunteers can help them with financial things too.”

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