First-year students from Mandalay Archdiocesan Higher Education Center attend an English grammar class at St. John's Catholic Church compound in Mandalay on Feb. 27. (ucanews.com photo)
Catholic youngsters from various ethnic backgrounds are benefiting from a new approach to education at a center set up by a Columban priest in Myanmar.
About 130 youths from 10 dioceses and of Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burmese and Akha ethnicity are taking a three-year residential course at the Mandalay Archdiocesan Higher Education Center (HEC) in the compound of St. John’s Catholic Church in Mandalay.
They are learning 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 at weekends and visit old people’s homes and a leper colony on an exposure program.
The center's vision is to empower young people to be mature and responsible parents/citizens by becoming leaders locally and nationally, teachers, activists/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 program through parish priests and then sit an entrance exam and oral test.
Father Neil Magill, a Columban priest from Ireland, founded the center in 2010 with 36 students with the backing of Emeritus Bishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng. It has seven full-time and 10 part-time staff.
The priest was motivated to establish the center after realizing 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 getting skills and knowledge.
“Education is building blocks for their bright future and it’s a foundation towards a democratic society,” Father Magill told ucanews.com.
The 72-year-old priest, who has been in Myanmar for 12 years, believes the Southeast Asian nation’s education system was neglected by the military regime which ruled the country for decades.
His method is to abandon 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 said.
Father Magill has been impressed with the commitment of young people eager to learn the skills to enhance their future.
Father Neil Magill, a Columban priest from Ireland, seen in his office on Feb. 27. (ucanews.com photo)
As the students come from different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicity, they get a chance to learn tradition and cultures. “It is a multi-ethnic approach and fosters respect and understanding among them,” the priest said.
The HEC has produced about 250 graduates. Some are working at Karuna (Caritas) offices, church-run boarding schools and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Six are doing further studies in the Philippines and three have got MBA degree from a university in Bangkok.
Some graduates are sending funds to the center by saving money from their salaries and some are rearing pigs and chickens to raise cash.
Thanks to benefactors from Father Magill’s homeland in Ireland and funding from Church in Need and MISSIO, the HEC can cover food, staff salaries and electricity, internet and equipment expenses.
The lack of accommodation is a challenge as Father Magill would like to accept more students. For the 2019-20 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 local priest from Mandalay Archdiocese works as his administrative assistant.
Christina Thiri Soe Moe Oo, a third-year student from Maygon village in Mandalay Archdiocese, said the program is improving her communication and social skills and helping her to learn about culture.
“Before we joined the center, 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 told ucanews.com.
Thiri wants to go abroad for further studies by specializing 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 by teaching English at the HEC.
Myanmar is emerging from decades of dictatorship after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2015 election. Critics have long blamed the former military dictatorship for ignoring Myanmar’s school system.
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