Sometimes, things need to move quickly.
Such was the case for Naw Moo Moo Paw, a Global Studies Ph.D. student and teaching assistant from Myanmar.
In May, Paw, 28, left her struggling country to come to Lowell, despite the threat of military arrest. Since a military coup took place in Myanmar on Feb. 1, nullifying a November 2020 general election, soldiers have pulled people off flights. Roadblocks have sprung up. The military has quashed critics with detention. Dissidents have died.
“We are used to living in a conflict area, used to running around bullets,” says Paw, who is Karen, an ethnic minority that comprises about 7% of Myanmar’s population. She is from an area where armed Karen dissidents battle the ruling army.
No one was certain Paw would make it from her hometown of Kyaukkyi, onto the flight out of the country until the jet was airborne. A week after her exit, she says, restrictions tightened even further.
That she would end up at UMass Lowell as a Global Studies Ph.D. student wasn’t a surprise, though it came about rapidly.
A small team from UML worked on Paw’s behalf. For days before she left Myanmar, the university – especially in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences — rallied behind the scenes to help welcome Paw as a student. Dean Luis Falcone, Assoc. Dean for Research and Graduate Programs Richard Serna, Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Studies Steven Tello and Assoc. Prof. Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, who is interim dean of Honors College, and Assoc. Prof. Angelica Duran-Martinez, director of the Global Studies program, were among those who cleared the path for Paw’s arrival.
A research stipend was set up, documents were processed and living arrangements made.
Ardeth Thawnghmung, chair of the Political Science Department and interim director of Peace and Conflict Studies, is hosting Paw. Thawnghmung is also Karen, and arrived in the U.S. in 1990 with $60 in her pocket. She was eventually hosted for a year by a host family in California then for two years by an Indiana family whose parents had been missionaries to Burma.
“I told Moo Moo, ‘You can stay in my house for free,’” says Thawnghmung, who joined the UML faculty in 2004. “I was blessed by these people and I want to do the same thing for her.”
Paw earned her master’s degree in public management and policy analysis in 2020 from International University of Japan. She is a master of using data, says Thawnghmung. She also has degrees in business management, development studies, international relations and geography.
Her prowess with data earned Paw a job with the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF), a nonprofit working for the development of evidence-based policy making and independent research practices in Myanmar. It was founded in Yangon, Myanmar, by natives Myat The Thitsar and her twin sister, Myat Thet Thitsar. Myat The, a UMass Lowell Ph.D. student in Global Studies, lives in and runs the nonprofit from Lowell.
Shortly after Paw began her work with EMReF, the coup happened. The foundation suspended its activities.
“I was the newest person, so I would be the first to be laid off,” says Paw.
Paw had planned to get her doctorate, but not for another five years. But her schedule suddenly opened, and her country was closing, ever tighter.
Myat The recommended UMass Lowell, then contacted Thawnghmung, who set the wheels in motion for Paw’s arrival.
Paw brings a unique perspective to campus, says Whitten-Woodring.
“We can’t imagine what it would be like to live under martial law. She absolutely knows. Very little is known about Myanmar from outside scholars because they can’t get access. It’s one of the most closed-off countries in the world, right up there with North Korea,” Whitten-Woodring says. “She will bring all of that to the classroom. It’s a very unique opportunity for our students.”
As Paw settles into her new home at UMass Lowell, she is thinking of her homeland. She is hopeful that the military coup will end soon and free democratic elections and freedoms will be restored.
“I just want my people to live peacefully,” she says, adding that she would like to work “behind the scenes” to help bring peace to Myanmar. “They don’t want war and don’t want fighting, just peace.”