Education and Arts


Graduations at Mae Sot

May 2015 was filled with intense excitement on the Thailand Burma Border as forty five migrant and refugee students prepared for graduation ceremonies presided over by Professor Geraldine Castleton. The academic procession in Mae Sot included special guest, Kim Roberts from York University who taught an online course on global environmental change in which ACU students were partnered with Canadian peers. Meeting face to face after many skype sessions was a wonderful surprise and Kim was much sought after for photographs.

Such ceremonies mark both an ending as ACU students and the beginning of a life-long learning journey. Every morning for the week before graduation, students assembled in the Mae Pa study center to rehearse speeches and the songs they had chosen for graduation. The exhilaration of academic success was tinged with sadness since the close knit community of learners would soon be disbanded as students left the ACU dormitories and study centers to return to the refugee camps, to begin new jobs or to return to distant villages inside Burma.

Graduation ceremonies on the Thai Burma Border for the Diploma of Liberal Studies have all the ingredients of such ceremonies everywhere: excited graduands, proud families, academics in funny gowns as well as speeches. However, ceremonies in Mae Spot and Ranong reflect the multi-lingual and multi-cultural environment and underline the extraordinary linguistic range of our ACU Diploma students, many of whom learn in in their third or fourth language: English! In Mae Sot, students welcomed family and guests in seven different languages: Chin, Kachin, Burmese, Shan, Arakanese, Shan and Karen and key speeches were delivered in both English and Burmese. In Ranong, speeches were delivered in three languages: as well as the Burmese translation, there was a power point with a Thai translation. In Both Mae Sot and Ranong ceremonies, entertainment was provided by talented dancers in traditional costumes.

This quote from the graduation speech delivered in English by Saw Zay Nar Nay Win and in Burmese by Shwe Zin Thin  in Ranong explains the outcomes of the Diploma program most eloquently:

"We really appreciate the University Online Diploma Program provided by the Australian Catholic University. We have not only received an education, but we have become educated. We know how to use our knowledge now. Now, we can feel and see the value of being educated. All the things that we learned from ACU changed our lives, thoughts, attitudes and character. This program opens the paths for our future plan. Before we had a simple dream for our life but now we are capable of thinking of a bigger and better plan for our life. Because of the education we have received, some of us now have helpful jobs to benefit our community. At the same time we have got good salaries that we can also help our families".

The final graduation ceremony which occurred in Bangkok for five students from Pakistan, Syria and The Democratic Republic of Congo who completed the Certificate in Liberal Studies was smaller but no less significant. For these students, urban asylum seekers living in constant uncertainty and fear, the opportunity to study provided not just knowledge and skills but also hope for the future.

Graduation 1-152923 Graduation at Mae Sot I
Graduation at Mae Sot 2 Graduation at Mae Sot II

By Maya Cranitch, Coordinator (ACU Refugee Education Program)
June, 2015

Update on the Thai Burma Refugee Program

ACU partners with universities from the United States and Canada to provide tertiary education to Burmese refugees along the Thai-Burma boarder. The ACU Thai-Burma Program offers a diploma in Liberal Studies taught through a combination of online and face-to-face lessons. Maya Cranitch, is ACU's Thai Burma Program Coordinator and she has put together an update of the program from her last visit.

On a recent trip to Thailand, I surveyed the graduates of the Diploma of Liberal Studies. Over dinner in the night fish market in Mae Sot with a group of 13 alumni I heard about the extraordinary range of their activities. Some has returned to Burma, others were working on the Thai-Burma border in non- government and community based organisations involved with human rights, health and education Among their employers were the Danish Refugee Council, the Karen Education Department,  Marist Misson Ranong, the Backpack Health Team, the Border Green Energy Team, World Education and UNICEF. Others are teaching in refugee camps or migrant schools while a few are continuing their education on scholarships studying Nursing in Thailand and Education in Hong Kong or Czech Republic.

As I listened to their conversation I was struck by the enormous growth in confidence, maturity, and command of English as well as their dedication to working with and for their communities. It is here, in creating opportunities for these young people that the full impact and value of the ACU diploma program can be measured as a contribution to building a more just and equitable society.

In January 2014 a new cohort of 54 students began studying for the Diploma of Liberal Studies.

The ACU Diploma is now widely acclaimed as a tertiary level course which develops knowledge and skills and the only one which provides formal accreditation. The current students were selected from over 260 applicants who sat for an oral and written English test as well as an extensive interview. Having passed the selection process, they approached their studies with great excitement and enthusiasm. In Mae Sot in the north of Thailand and Ranong in the south, they are refugees and migrant workers from Burma. In Bangkok, they are asylum seekers from Pakistan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

2014 has created some significant challenges for all our students. While the Military coup in Thailand has resulted in quiet on the streets of Bangkok, it has serious consequences for refugees and migrant workers. Though there are no new regulations, the interpretation and enforcement of migration laws has become much stricter. The Thai National Council for Peace and Order (NCOP) recalled all camp residents in July for a head count and temporarily closed the refugee camps. Anyone not present at the head count loses their right to food rations, entitlement to plead ' refugee status'. Students worked together in camp to complete assignments and hurried back to the study center. Local staff, coordinators and tutors managed disruptions to study and collaborated to ensure a secure environment in study centers.

I participated in February 2014 in a UNHCR ( United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Round Table conference on tertiary education for refugees at which ACU was recognised as an innovator providing models for other institutions such as JC:HEM ( Jesuit Commons, Higher Education at the Margins) to deliver education to refugee communities throughout the world.

Though Duncan Maclaren has retired from the role of coordinator of the program, he is an Adjunct professor at ACU and returned to Thailand in April to teach a unit: Introduction to Development Studies. Duncan along with Professor Gail Crossley has shaped the Diploma Program into a highly successful and sustainable program and both remain committed and valued advisors.

By Maya Cranitch, Coordinator (ACU Refugee Education Program)
September, 2014

Mae Sot November Graduation

On November 23, thirty-six Burmese refugee and migrant students graduated with a Diploma of Liberal Studies, with one graduating with a Certificate. The program is awarded by ACU and taught by ACU staff as well as lecturers from York University, Toronto and Fairfield University, Connecticut.

Professor Gail Crossley, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, presided over the graduation. Other ACU staff taking part were Duncan MacLaren, program coordinator, Maya Cranitch, lecturer, Professor Shawn Somerset of Public Health, Brisbane as well as the resident tutor, Professor Rosaleen Smyth and local coordinator William Shwe and his assistant (and graduate of the program) Kyaw Ye Min and the past tutor, Frank Morgan.

Over 200 friends, family and staff and students from migrant schools in the Mae Sot area were present to see the graduands receive their testamurs, the culmination of a year's hard work studying eight different units with their differing concepts and vocabularies in a foreign language from an old wooden house acting as the study centre and men's dorm!

A year before, most of them were languishing in a refugee camp - bright young people with no hope of education after secondary school. As Professor Smyth said in her address, the students chose 'Restoring Hope' as the motto on their ACU T-shirts and that is exactly what the program has been able to offer.

Some of the students have already had interviews for universities in Hong Kong to study for a degree. Others hope to work for NGOs or to teach back in Burma where properly trained teachers with critical thinking skills are in short supply.

Professor Crossley echoed this in her final words to the students, saying:  "The young people who graduate today are a powerful symbol of the new Burma rising from the ashes of the old. I congratulate you all and wish you well in whatever field you have chosen to work or study. Your university is proud of you."

Eugene Barblut Sein, one of the graduates, gave a vote of thanks on behalf of all the students. As Duncan MacLaren noted, Eugene spoke with a slight BBC English accent, mainly because he had improved his English by listening to Stephen Fry read the Harry Potter books on radio while still in Mae La camp.

After many photographs had been taken of beaming smiles, there was dancing from many of the ethnic groups present in Burma and then a lunch at a large Catholic School in Mae Sot.

The Graduation ceremony of international refugee students in Bangkok and Burmese students in Ranong will take place on November 26 and 27 respectively.

November 25, 2013

Development in Burma

Duncan MacLaren, reporting from Mae Sot and Ranong, Thailand - Download the article 'The lady' seen from the Thai-Burmese Border (PDF, 136kb)

ACU Thai-Burma program receives prestigious award

On October 5, I had the fortune to attend the Palms Australia's 2nd Annual Solidarity Awards luncheon with Associate Vice-Chancellor, Professor Marea Nicholson, Mrs Maya Cranitch, Professor Jan Seruga – Head, School of Arts and Sciences (NSW/ACT), Duncan MacLaren and Ms Colleen Malone.  The Awards event was held at Lachlan's Old Government House, Parramatta Park.  We were honoured by a performance of the Australian Karen Organisation Choir who beautifully danced and sang in their traditional Burmese Karen ethnic dress.

Associate Vice Chancellor Professor Marea Nicholson, Professor Jan Seruga, Kate Evans and Duncan MacLaren L-R Associate Vice Chancellor Professor Marea Nicholson, Professor Jan Seruga, Kate Evans and Duncan MacLaren.

Palms Australia was established in 1961 by recruiting volunteers to provide capacity building activities in Papua New Guinea.  Palms provides volunteers "cooperating across cultures to achieve a just, inter-dependent, sustainable and peaceful world free of poverty."

Duncan MacLaren, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Lecturer, was a keynote speaker for the event. "Duncan MacLaren has served as Secretary General for Caritas Internationalis in Rome, the world's most extensive aid and development network. He currently coordinates the Australian Catholic University's Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma border, which is assisted by Palms volunteers."

Six awards were presented on the day recognising working in solidarity with less developed communities.  The ACU Thai-Burma Program was fortunate to receive the Mutual Development through Relationship Award.  This award was accepted by Head of School, Professor Jan Seruga on behalf of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Program.  The award is given to "an organisation that applies Palms' model of sustainable development to build the capacity of individuals and organisations through long-term relationships".

By Kate Evans, Senior Advisor, ACU Foundation
October, 2013

News from the field

This June four ACU staff members flew up to Thailand to work with the ACU Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma border:– two from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Lachlan Warner, Senior Lecturer in Visual Arts, and Duncan MacLaren, Lecturer and Program Coordinator) and two from Marketing and External Relations (Tristan Velasco, Digital Production Coordinator, and Kate Evans, Senior Advisor ACU Foundation). ACU provides a course in Thailand where refugees and migrants may earn a Diploma in Liberal Studies.

Lachlan has been delivering a course on photography to program students.  Refugee student Nyi Nyi Zaw viewed this course as a way to enhance his desire to become a journalist.  He now would like to add photo journalism to the valuable skills he is learning at the ACU Study Centre near Mae Sot, Thailand. Lachlan is providing a conceptual learning experience for the refugees and migrants participating in the program. He is engaging both the right and the left side of their brains in the learning process.

These students have come from extreme circumstances in either the refugee camps, in their home country or has discriminated migrants. Most are used to rote learning; a style where the information is given to the students; it is memorised, tested, and quickly forgotten. The ACU program provides these refugees and migrants with a way of learning that challenges them to question the information they are being given. The students are learning in a second language (English) critical thinking skills that will better serve them in their future goals.

At the time of this report, Duncan, Kate and Tristan are now in Ranong, Thailand visiting the migrant students who are taking the course, while Lachlan has travelled to Bangkok to teach two Pakistani refugees at the UNHCR/COERR run Bangkok Refugee Centre (BRC). COERR is the refugee agency of the Thai Catholic Bishops' conference and a member of Caritas Internationalis. These urban refugees are the first students in a pilot program at the BRC to receive an ACU education and Lachlan's subject to round-out the Liberal Studies course.  When Kate was in Bangkok a week earlier, she met with Pakistani refugee and ACU student, Anum John. She had said how excited she was to begin the newest program subject with Lachlan Warner. She had wanted to know how to take pictures but had never had a camera. Anum had to escape Pakistan with her family as her father a police officer was shot in the face by the Taliban and the family continued to be threatened, primarily because they were Catholic. Her cousin, Cornelius Khursheed, who had earned a physiotherapy degree in Pakistan is also an ACU student; Cornelius had to leave because of his Catholic faith and because he helped Anum's father with his recovery.

The ACU Program will utilise the videos, photography and stories about this visit to Mae Sot, Ranong and Bangkok later this year in hopes to encourage support for the ACU Refugee Program to achieve financial stability.

By Kate Evans, Senior Advisor, ACU Foundation
June 16, 2013

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