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Student returns to her roots through study abroad

| LeBrenda Street

Sumya PaungLike many students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Sumya Paung had her heart set on studying abroad from the minute she stepped on campus. She also knew her parents wouldn’t be able to help her because of financial constraints, so she worked hard at extra jobs to save money and applied for a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship her senior year.

What makes Sumya’s story so different from the stories of many other students who study abroad is that she was determined to return to a place where she once lived in constant fear of being exposed as a political refugee. For that reason, Sumya’s story is of a circular journey marked by hardship, perseverance and success.

"I was doubtful that I would receive the prestigious Gilman Scholarship since it is so competitive, though I was hopeful that my experiences and goals for wanting to study abroad would provide me the chance,” Sumya said.

Sumya’s study abroad experience is unique because she is not traveling to a country totally new to her; she traveled to Thailand where she spent four years as a Burmese refugee.
Sumya, a senior art-graphic design major, is one of two UW-Eau Claire students awarded the Gilman Scholarship to study abroad for the spring term. She is currently studying abroad on the USAC Thailand Program at Chiang Mai University, taking classes to fulfill her Asian studies minor. Along with her studies at the university, Sumya will be participating in an internship as a graphic designer at City Life Magazine.

Sumya was raised by her aunt and uncle in Burma until she was 8. Eventually, she and her sister were able to join their parents who were living in a small apartment in the suburb of Bangkok, Thailand. Living as political refugees was difficult for Sumya and her family as Thai police barely tolerated refugees, and the Paung family lived in constant fear of being detained and deported at any time. Luckily, Sumya’s family evaded detection and local residents welcomed the Paungs into the community. Sumya and her sister were able attend school, learn Thai, and become a part of the community where they lived for three years before coming to the United States and settling in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Along with her studies and internship, Sumya is volunteering at a local orphanage by helping care for children between the ages of 3 and 5. She also is applying to volunteer at the Thai Freedom House, a nongovernmental, nonprofit language and arts community center that is dedicated to assisting refugees from Burma and other minority groups in Thailand.

“I was in shocked when I found out about the Freedom House through my study abroad website because it is something on the other side of the world with which I can personally empathize,” Sumya said. “I will get to do art while working with children and refugees from my original country.”

During her study abroad, Sumya is taking a Thai language course in order to enhance her speaking skills. She also will be taking a field study course on the people of the Thai Hill Tribes to get the chance to interact and engage with the villagers and their culture first hand.

Throughout her stay Sumya plans to put her photography skills to work.

“Photography allows me to express myself and my beliefs. It also helps me to notice the details and the beauty of my everyday surroundings,” she said. “That is how I want to approach my experiences abroad; I want to capture the beauty of Thailand and the essence of its people through photographs.”

One of the requirements of the Gilman Scholarship is to have a follow-up service project proposal. It is a chance for students to explain how they will give back by inspiring others to pursue their own experiences abroad. Using her skills in graphic design, Sumya plans to capture her own view of Thailand and create visual stories to share. She will be presenting her photos at the study abroad fair and orientation, and she also plans to use her graphic design skills to create brochures and posters for the study abroad program.

“When people look at the photos, I want them to be able to hear, smell, feel Thailand’s culture from looking at the photo and imagine themselves there. I want my photos to be the reason people want to visit Thailand.”

Sumya plans to become a study abroad ambassador for UW-Eau Claire and give presentations to classrooms to raise awareness of the study abroad program and the Gilman Scholarship that made her trip to Thailand a reality.

Gilman Scholarship

The Gilman International Scholarship Program offers grants to students of limited financial means for the opportunity to study abroad. The program offers study abroad grants to Pell Grant financial aid recipients to help make study abroad more affordable.
The scholarship is awarded by term and three to five UW-Eau Claire students receive the scholarship each year.

“I think what makes UWEC students successful is that we offer a variety of resources to help the students write their essays,” Jenna Krosch, study abroad coordinator, said. “The Center for Writing Excellence just recently started offering a workshop that focuses just on writing a Gilman essay. Those workshops, combined with the study abroad coordinators working with applicants and reviewing essays, help our students craft exceptional essays.”
More information about the Gilman International Scholarship Program is available online.

Photo captions:

Top photo: Members of the Karen Hill Tribe guide study abroad students on rafts in a shallow stream during a three-day tour of the villages of Thailand.

Photo within story: Sumya Paung