Economics major James Aung emigrated from Myanmar to Lowell in 2008, just as political and economic reforms were beginning to take root in his troubled homeland (also known as Burma).
Since then, the rising senior has become executive director of the SayDaNar Community Development Center
, a volunteer-based organization that serves the nearly 300 Burmese refugees and immigrants who, like himself, have built new lives in Lowell.
When Aung learned that 49 MBA students from Myanmar would be visiting UMass Lowell this summer to attend the Manning School of Business’ annual Global Entrepreneurship and Innovation course, he seized the opportunity to connect SayDaNar members with their Burmese compatriots. Working with the course organizer, Manning lecturer Ashwin Mehta
, Aung arranged a special dinner and social event for the visiting students, hosted by SayDaNar at the Calvary Baptist Church.
The visiting MBA students, who had just received their certificates for completing the two-week program, thanked their hosts by spontaneously taking up a collection of $1,470 to donate to the SayDaNar organization following the dinner.
“It was a very touching moment,” says Mehta, who began the innovative exchange program in 2014. “It was a wonderful way to celebrate the final day of the course.”
Aung, who didn’t expect such a generous donation, watched with a smile as SayDaNar members of all ages interacted with their guests at the event, which included traditional, home-cooked Burmese dishes, spirited games of volleyball on the church lawn and an appearance by state Rep. Rady Mom.
“Usually refugees come from the countryside, while students usually live in the city,” Aung says. “They may never meet in Burma, so this is a good time for them to meet each other.”
Political Science chair Ardeth Thawnghmung
, a native of Myanmar, was one of several faculty members in attendance. Like Mehta, Thawnghmung says she was moved, but not surprised, by the generosity of both the hosts and guests.
“The Burmese refugees in Lowell spent hours preparing for the event, cooking everything from scratch, and I think the guests were touched by the hospitality and impressed by the works SayDaNar does,” says Thawnghmung, who noted a recent study by the Charities Aid Foundation found that Myanmar was tied with the United States as the most generous country in the world. “The spirit of volunteering and giving back to the community has continued to be preserved by the Myanmar refugees in Lowell.”
Thawnghmung says that SayDaNar has developed a close collaboration with UMass Lowell over the past five years, in which faculty and students have lent their expertise, time and resources to help with things like the center’s afterschool program and fundraising activities.
“This event is another example of successful collaboration and partnership between the university and local organizations,” she says, “and reinforces UMass Lowell’s commitment toward engagement with the local community.”
The Global Entrepreneurship and Innovation program
brings together students from diverse academic disciplines and cultures to collaborate in small groups on entrepreneurial projects, with a winter session in India and a summer session in Lowell. Since its inception in 2014, the program has grown from 30 students participating from two countries to 122 students from eight countries.
This marked the first summer that the course was expanded to two separate two-week offerings. The first session, which ran June 13-24, had 73 students from India, China, Japan, Thailand, Guyana, Myanmar, Haiti and the U.S. (including 18 Manning MBA students). The second session, which ran June 27-July 8, was attended exclusively by the 49 Myanmar students who are part of an MBA program offered by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, which has campuses in the Myanmar cities of Mandalay and Yangon.
UTTC Dean Jakarin Srimoon accompanied his students on the trip and met with new Manning Dean Sandra Richtermeyer to discuss future collaborations between the schools.
“I’m impressed with the people here and the energy of the new dean,” Srimoon said as his students visited DifferenceMaker Central
on North Campus. “We would like to have strong partners here in the U.S. and create a collaboration that makes a difference in the lives of people in Thailand and Myanmar.”
Myo Thet, vice president of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, also led the delegation of students while participating in the course.
“Our country has mostly family-run businesses, and we should transform to regional and global businesses,” Thet says. “This is a good reference for us, to apply the good examples of UMass Lowell, especially the DifferenceMaker Program, to encourage our innovators.”
UTTC student Kyi Tha Htun, a medical doctor by training from Yangon, is pursuing his MBA in order to start his own medical equipment training business. After completing the Global Entrepreneurship course, he was struck by how different the education system is in the U.S.
“In our country it is like spoon feeding. The teacher says ‘that,’ and you study ‘that’ and answer ‘that.’ There is no thinking outside the box,” Htun says. “Here, they encourage you to think in your own way. They just give the seed of an idea, and we have to grow from that.”
Standing in the recently renovated McGauvran Center as he awaited the certificate ceremony, Htun couldn’t help but marvel at the campus setting.
“I am envious of students of UMass Lowell,” he said. “They have a very good education system, very good professors and very good facilities, which can encourage them for whatever they want to do.”