Bringing U.S. and Myanmar Higher Education Together: Htoo Htoo Wah’s Reflections

Htoo Htoo Wah is the head of the English Department at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, a leading Christian higher education institution in Myanmar. After spending four intense weeks as a visiting scholar at Northern Arizona University, he had a moment to reflect on his experience of U.S. higher education.

Northern Arizona University was one of ten U.S. colleges and universities to join IIE in February 2013 on a partnership-focused U.S. higher education delegation to Myanmar. As a result of the visit, the U.S. schools committed to a number of concrete actions to increase academic engagement with counterparts in Myanmar. NAU committed to hosting a scholar for an internship on English language education and, with the support of senior administrators, NAU’s Center for International Education brought Htoo Htoo Wah to campus from mid-August through mid-September 2014. Htoo Htoo Wah also completed the 20-week IIE pilot course, Connecting with the World: International Relations at Higher Education Institutions, which provided 56 Myanmar higher education professionals with training on how to initiate and manage an international office on campus. The following are Htoo Htoo Wah’s reflections about U.S. higher education, Myanmar higher education, and the role of international exchange in bringing them closer together.

My name is Htoo Htoo Wah, and I am the head of the English department at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, a leading Christian institute in Myanmar. At the invitation of Northern Arizona University’s Center of International Education, I visited NAU as a visiting scholar from August 17 to September 12, 2014. In the following, I hope to share some of my personal observations of U.S. higher education based on my experience on the NAU campus, how this visit has equipped and enriched me personally as well as professionally, and how I aim to apply the knowledge I have learned here at the Myanmar Institute of Theology.

U.S. Higher Education through a Northern Arizona University lens
U.S. higher education, as I observed at NAU, seems to emphasize the holistic development of students, since it focuses not only on academic skills but also on personal, social, and professional skills. To achieve this goal, NAU offers various degree programs in multiple disciplines, so that students can choose the program that meets their interests and needs. To maintain its quality, NAU hires qualified and experienced administrators, professors and lecturers, and the campus is equipped with modern facilities, equipment, and teaching aids in the classrooms. The library is well stocked with books on different subjects, electronic resources, and online databases, and students can take part in many entertaining and informative activities that relieve stress and broaden their horizons.

Teaching Methodologies in the U.S. and Myanmar
During my four-week stay here, I was privileged to meet with many teachers from the Program in Intensive English (PIE) and observe some of their classes. What impressed me the most about PIE is that the staff and faculty always worked as a team to ensure cooperation and coordination. The teachers were friendly, helpful, open-minded, and – most importantly – skilled in their respective fields. Their classes were interactive, lively, and fun because of their use of student-centered approaches.

This is different from a typical Myanmar classroom setting, which currently puts an emphasis on a teacher-centered approach and rote learning. Such an approach, in my opinion, poses several challenges by inhibiting students’ learning process and putting the majority of the responsibility on teachers. The present education system in Myanmar tends to focus on “read” and “regurgitate” and less on “reflect.” This kind of traditional instruction may be useful for remembering and understanding some basic rules and knowledge; however, it gives students limited opportunities to think critically and creatively to apply their knowledge in real life. I feel it is important for Myanmar to adopt a more student-centered approach, which will help students to connect what they have learned at university with life after university and equip them with the skills they need to cope with real-life challenges.

International Education and Exchange
One of NAU’s objectives is “to engage its students with a curriculum that is relevant to the world.” In line with this objective, NAU sends its students and teachers to other parts of the world and brings in students and teachers from other countries to its campus. From my experience, such programs can enrich and enlighten people in many ways. By learning about other peoples’ cultures, we can become more understanding, tolerant, and cooperative. Such exchange programs can instill in us a spirit of patriotism, a sense of sharing, and the opportunity for people of different faiths and backgrounds to find common ground and work together towards a common goal. This can, in turn, bring about peace, something we need urgently in our world.

Knowing the importance of connecting with the world, the Myanmar Institute of Theology is now making plans to establish an International Relations office. By having an IR office on our campus, MIT students and teachers will be more exposed to international culture and education. I am one of the individuals who will lead this IR office, and what I have observed and learned here at NAU will be of great help in establishing and running an IR office at our school.

I feel that this experience at NAU will serve to develop many others in Myanmar because they will benefit from my experience and expertise, most of which are shaped and enriched by overseas trainings like this. I have learned a lot about school administration and English language teaching; my English language skills and communication skills have improved; and, most importantly, my social network has broadened, helping me to become a better person and a better professional. For this, I am truly grateful.

Htoo Htoo Wah
Flagstaff, Arizona
September 2014