Off the Beaten Path

Small liberal arts colleges find more success recruiting students in Myanmar than in countries that send far more students to the U.S.
July 25, 2011

Soe Yu Nwe’s journey from her home country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to the United States in 2009 brought her to Albion College, a liberal arts college in southern Michigan. Like many Burmese students, Nwe (who goes by the nickname Joy) came to the U.S. to study biology. She found her true calling, she says, when she took a ceramics class in her first semester.

“The curriculum in Myanmar focuses mainly on science and math,” she said. “That’s the benefit of a liberal arts college – you have to take art classes in order to graduate anyway … so you’re more experimental in choosing them.”

Nwe, now a junior majoring in fine arts, is one of many Burmese students coming to the U.S. to study at small liberal arts institutions, which have found Myanmar to be an ideal place to recruit -- despite overwhelming poverty and a repressive regime. The numbers from Myanmar are tiny in comparison to the numbers enrolling at major research universities from China, India and elsewhere. But several colleges have boosted overall international enrollments -- and have gone from having no students from Myanmar to a few each year.

Albion, which enrolls a total of 1,700 students -- including 22 international students -- currently has four Burmese students enrolled, and three more will enter this fall. Recruiting efforts at institutions like Juniata College, Clark University, and California Lutheran University have boosted the number of total Burmese students in the U.S. to its highest in seven years. According to data from the Institute of International Education, there were 695 students from Myanmar this past academic year, compared to 667 the previous year and 604 the year before that. Recruiters said they expect that number to rise this year.

Efforts to bring in Burmese students pay off slowly because of the coordination required to bring them in, but recruiters said the impact was high at smaller institutions. Juniata, a liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania with a total enrollment of about 1,500, has two Burmese students, and will have a total of five in the fall. A few years ago, it had none.

Brett Basomb, the college's director of international enrollment, describes the students he's enrolled as enthusiastic and engaged in campus life. Basomb, who has made two trips to the country in the past two years, attributes this to the widespread use of English (Myanmar is a former British colony) and a culture open to outsiders. His observations were echoed by other recruiters, who said Burmese students generally come across as warm and sociable. "I saw that they would fit in well at a school like this," Basomb said.

There's another reason that Myanmar is a good match for small colleges – it is largely overlooked by larger institutions, but has a wealth of qualified students eager to come to the U.S. to study.

Until recently, Myanmar was not on any recruiters’ radars – it languished in the shadow of China and India, two emerging economic and military superpowers that bring in thousands of recruiters every year. Recruiters have traditionally avoided developing countries like Myanmar out of fear that students will be underprepared and too needy.

They might also be wary of working around Myanmar’s military regime, which made international headlines in 2007 after cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrators.

But the number of students interested in learning English and studying abroad is increasing rapidly. English-immersion high schools and courses preparing students for the SAT and ACT are popping up across Yangon, the capital, and enrollments are climbing quickly. “We’re headed in a direction of more schools having higher-quality students,” said Mike Anthony, a guidance counselor at the Myanmar International School.

Dane Rowley visited the country as a recruiter for California Lutheran University in 2007, just before the beginning of the government crackdown. Rowley, now the dean of admissions at Augustana College, in Illinois, said he brought a total of seven Burmese students to Cal Lutheran from 2008 to 2010. He has been at Augustana for less than a year, but he says he is planning to do the same there.

Rowley said he was impressed with the students’ attitude and work ethic. “They’re very eager to change the world,” Rowley said. “You find pockets of students like that everywhere you go, but they are the majority here.” Rowley invited recruiters from 50 other colleges in 2009 to join him on his return visit; Albion’s recruiter, Lewis Cardenas, was the only one who joined him. With Anthony’s help, they set up speaking engagements at high schools across Yangon – each drew in overflow crowds, and many students showed up for second and third sessions with friends.

The experience was refreshing for Cardenas, who said he is used to being overshadowed by recruiters from larger institutions on trips to China, India, and Korea. But many of those institutions, he said, are passing over a hidden recruiting gem, perhaps out of fear of the authoritarian regime running the country.

“If you go in a small-group setting, it’s going to be a wonderful experience,” he said. “It’s no more dangerous than some of the places we visit as recruiters.”

But there are limits, Cardenas said. U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, aimed at pressuring the regime, prevent a small percentage of students from getting American visas. Those students typically have relatives who are involved, directly or indirectly, with the Burmese government. But Anthony, the guidance counselor, said American recruiters and students interested in studying in the U.S. typically receive no interference from Burmese government.

Basomb, Juniata's director of international enrollment, has made the trip to Myanmar twice. Like the other recruiters who have traveled there, he describes the experience as “traveling back in time” because sanctions and embargoes have prevented the widespread urbanization that has taken hold in neighboring countries. That works well for smaller, more rural institutions like Juniata, which have trouble convincing students in Seoul and Tokyo to come to the middle of rural Pennsylvania. Burmese students, he said, seemed more open to the possibility.

“I thought the students were pretty down-to-earth,” he said. “They’re not looking for skyscrapers and Prada on the street corner.”


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