BridgeBurma, is a passion project created by a group of Burmese college students studying abroad to provide a space for sharing knowledge and cultivate wisdom in Myanmar.
I speak to 2 members of BridgeBurma’s founding team: Thiha and Zack to discuss their mission.
We discuss some of the common challenges facing young Burmese students who want to study abroad, and some of the skills required to overcome them.
Listen to the full conversation in audio or read a selected excerpt below.
The first part is in English and we switch to Burmese language at 33:40.
➤ So Thiha can you tell me where you are located right now?
Thiha: I'm actually living in Hong Kong right now. I am a university student, second year - studying accounting.
➤ Cool! And Zack, can you tell me where are you in the world?
Zack: Well I'm in San Mateo, California. I already graduated like a year ago so I'm working right now full time.
➤ Excellent! So first, when you meet someone new and they ask you, ‘What is BridgeBurma?’ how do you respond?
Z: Well we tell them it's a sort of platform that you can connect with Burmese youth or if you want to study abroad, you can connect to people [also] studying abroad and get to know more about the application process, how life is over there from a student’s perspective. So yeah, it's an online social platform.
➤ So it's an online social platform for Burmese youth who want to study abroad, is that right?
Z: Yeah, at the core we have the platform but essentially it's more like a community of people who want to study abroad. You can find a good transition, like people to connect with. Essentially, in the network we have mentors abroad, we have people from US, from Hong Kong, UK, Singapore, Malaysia, pretty much as much coverage as we can get.
And you can just reach out to any of our mentors on the platform and just ask them about their perspective and their views there. So yeah, that's a community there.
➤ What is the requirement? How does somebody join?
T: We actually do not have any requirements to join BridgeBurma. Basically we have a platform where you can open an account of your own. You can sign up to the forum, you can ask any questions you want on the forum and then anyone who wants to answer can also answer.
Mainly the mentors will answer. We have around 50 plus mentors on our platform right now and we have an audience and following of around 12 000 people who regularly read our Facebook page and use our platform. So there are no requirements.
Basically, you just need to sign up to the platform and if we have a program, say a mentorship program, where we promote each of the mentors and promote their profiles and ask for the audience to sign up, they can just sign up. And then meet and talk to the mentors, so there are no requirements.
➤ What are your roles in BridgeBurma?
Z: Well, I can go first. For me I'm the External Relations Director and also a Co-founder so most of my roles are just overseeing the PR related activities, so when reaching out to other organizations I handle that. There is an event that I'm actually coordinating right now which is called the virtual Global Study Abroad information sessions that are coming up for the next three months I think, so look out for that. But yeah that's pretty much what I do.
T: For me I am a Digital Marketing specialist at BridgeBurma so I have a team of around five people. When there is a program like the one Zack is going to be launching, I take care of promoting these type of events for the people, for the project owners and the program owners who want to run successfully and get a lot of sign ups and many audiences for the program. So that's basically my role.
➤ What are some of the main challenges that you see students facing?
Z: You should probably relate to how we even founded this organization in the first place because we were students like them once, right? So our biggest problem was networking. We didn't have a network or the right direction to lead us when we wanted to study abroad, like, ‘How are we going to know what school to choose? What are the requirements? How do you start the application?’
Our schools back then -- at least when we were in high school which is like 2015 or 2014 -- we didn't have proper counselors who tell us, ‘You should apply starting already like one year before you graduate and stuff like that,’ so I guess requirements, qualifications, [information] was a bit lacking and we haven't even talked about scholarships yet. Because around that time, I think even right now, everybody needs a scholarship.
In Myanmar especially more funding is required these days so scholarship is a very big thing and in our organization at least we have around half of the people who are scholar scholarship recipients. Two of our co-founders are scholarship recipients actually. They went and studied in Germany, another one that studied I think in the UK. They got full scholarships all the way from like high school to college. Our CEO’s mission -- and she gives talks time to time, she's a really interesting person to talk to actually -- [is to] draw experience from those so that we can transfer the knowledge, like, ‘Hey here is what you need to apply for a scholarship? Here’s what kind of scholarships there are,’ different kinds of scholarship, financial aid and stuff.
So yeah, all these kind of things, opportunities, they need this knowledge, you know, before they start going into [the process] of studying abroad.
T: For me, my main hardship was finance. I have a brother who studies in the US, who is actually living with Zack right now. So when he went to study in the US, the tuition fees were really really high so I didn't want to burden my parents anymore, so I had to find if there are any other opportunities that I can apply to like financial aid scholarship and luckily I found something here in Hong Kong. I am actually attending this university with scholarships that are fully covered starting from tuition fees, living expenses and residential fees.
The main problem that I had when finding these opportunities was researching what was available out there. So that is also the main thing that I'm trying to teach others: how to browse web properly, especially for the Burmese students because I think this is a really really important skill. You need to know English and also you need to use English to browse websites and find what are the opportunities and what is out there for you.
➤ Oh my gosh, I talk about this all the time but we're gonna get to that. First, can you tell me, you said tuition fees are really high - can you give me some rough numbers? So what is a high tuition fee?
T: For the US, for undergraduates the tuition fee is around US$60,000 per academic year - please correct me if I’m wrong Zack - and for Hong Kong it's HK$145,000 which would be around US$23,000 per year. That's only tuition fees not including living expenses and room.
➤ Is that about the same as your experience Zack?
Z: Yeah pretty much. 60k is just tuition fees alone. You add up the living expenses and stuff it will rise up to like 70k, somewhere around there. That's without any scholarship.
➤ So does that mean only a certain type of Burmese person will apply, or even think about applying to study abroad?
Z: I mean that's true if you don't put effort into trying to look for more scholarships, right? What I’m saying is there is a trade-off essentially. I would say if you're going for a 60k, 70k school that's really really high up there in the rankings, those schools really don't really give out scholarships much. But if you don't really care about the ranking -- which you don't need to care about for a Bachelor’s -- you can go for a mid-tier school, like ranking around 50 out there. And those schools usually give out full scholarships or at least half and the rest you can loan it and stuff that's why you really need to know how to look up the research, the right information and which universities and how to apply for them.
Because it's not only scholarship. You can apply for aid, you can have loans and stuff. So many things come into play. And eventually it does pay off I think, once you get a job in the US, assuming you get it a work visa and stuff like that.
But yeah, there are definitely ways. If you can't afford it, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn't come. There are ways to afford it and we're all here to help introduce these ways to you guys.
Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.