From Myanmar to America: First-generation college student redefines resilience

At the age of 16, Hmway Mya Saint Aung knew there was more to life than staying in her hometown of Yangon, Myanmar. Among her group of friends, she was the only one whose parents gave permission to pursue a quality education outside of their country. She set her sights on the nearest place she could use as a stepping stone on her journey: Singapore.

Although supportive, her parents were initially hesitant about their daughter’s determination to leave the country, largely because of her youth. Despite this, Aung headed to Singapore with her aunt, who accompanied her for five days before returning home.

“I remember my aunt said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? We haven’t paid the school fees yet. We can go back,’” Aung recalled vividly. “I feel like, at that time, I was the only one that believed in myself.”

Those five days were enough to fuel a surge of determination inside of her. She was not just trying to prove her family wrong, but also planting a seed of self-empowerment to make sure she could get past the fear of living on her own and earn a degree.

Aung is now accustomed to living by herself and has proven that solitude cannot damage a person despite how challenging and frightening it may be. The struggles she faced would become a testimony to how higher education goes beyond just classroom instruction, but can also be a way to better understanding the world and oneself.

Aung’s first eight months in Singapore were lonely. There was barely anyone to talk to, and she didn’t want to worry her family back home. 

Eventually, she learned to survive on her own and built up a community from scratch. In 2012, she earned a diploma in business administration from Kaplan Singapore, a large university. 

“That’s when I learned to be on my own and enjoy my own company,” said Aung. “I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t that bad.’” 

However, she’d soon reach another obstacle in her academic journey.

Wanting to further her education, she began researching schools in England but was disappointed to find that moving there would require taking the Advanced Level exams; she’d have to complete two more years of school and come up with a whole lot of money.

Aung did not let that stop her. 

“I ended up at an American center where they talked about American education,” Aung recalled. “After telling them about my story, they talked to me about community college and showed me two choices: one in Washington and another in California.”

In 2012, she headed for Pierce College just outside Seattle, Washington. She instantly felt at home in the city and quickly formed friendships.

Two years later, she earned her associate degree and moved to Florida where she enrolled at Barry University for a semester before transferring to Florida International University to study organizational communication.

After 2016, she decided to take some time off. 

“I took a gap year because I felt like I didn’t have any legit experience, and I thought that could be a problem,” shared Aung. “Even [then], employers would ask you for three years of experience right out of college.”

Aung with Colombian school children. (Photo courtesy of Hmway Mya Saint Aung)

Thus began her involvement in nonprofit projects.

In 2017, she briefly worked with UNESCO before meeting Wesley Hilario on another project in Guanajuato, Mexico.

They were both living with the same host family. During that short time together, Hilario said Aung helped him find a new direction in life.

“She was one of the driving forces behind me pursuing a different career,” said Hilario. “I was going to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, but she inspired me to pursue my passions with her great pep talks; I decided to go more towards media and create videos, photos and ads.”

Afterward, Aung traveled to eight different countries by herself. She assembled bags with personal care items for over 70 Venezuelan refugees in Ecuador, listened to their personal stories, and provided moral support. 

“I remember there was this one time where I listened to someone’s story,” Aung described. “This child only had $50 in their hand and took three days to cross the border of their country.”

She later moved to rural Colombia to work for the country’s Ministry of Education, where she taught educational strategies to practice in the classroom.

Aung faced minor struggles during this transitional period but soon realized that learning went beyond the classroom.

With her host family in Ecuador, she slowly improved her Spanish skills as they pointed to objects around the house and said their Spanish translations. 

She endured various hardships, from navigating the slower-paced work environment in Latin America to facing racial discrimination. 

In 2019, Aung returned to Miami with her new experiences and graduated from FIU. She decided a master’s degree in higher education administration at FIU was her next calling.

Aung at a West Wing tour of the White House. (Photo courtesy of Hmway Mya Saint Aung)

While pursuing her degree, Aung applied to be a graduate assistant for the “FIU in D.C.” program. Eric Feldman, the former associate director of FIU’s Government & Community Affairs in Washington D.C., felt there was something that made her stand out from other applicants.

“When I called her and I told her we wanted to proceed with her, she was actually in Washington D.C. that same day,” Feldman explained. “The fact that she was already participating between the two cities on her own was impressive. She understood the connection between D.C. and Miami.” 

At first, she had doubts about living in the capital due to the jam-packed work environment, but now it has become her home. She works at the Cato Institute as a conference coordinator.

Aung attributes all her accomplishments to sheer willpower. She did not let her hometown’s limited resources stop her from furthering her studies, but instead used them as motivation. Prompted by her own journey, she plans to attain a Ph.D. in education to research the factors that influence first-generation minority college students and their relationships with higher education.

If there’s one thing Aung has learned from her past experiences, it’s that learning opens doors to valuable opportunities. 

“Higher education gives me hope,” she said. “It sounds cliche, but you can’t give up. You have to have faith that it’s going to work out.”

Alexandra Howard is a senior pursuing a dual degree in digital journalism and political science. She intends to later graduate from law school and become an immigration lawyer and political journalist.

Duvasana Bisoondial is a sophomore majoring in Digital Journalism and getting a certificate in Women's and Gender Studies at Florida International University. Her goal as a future journalist is to highlight the social and cultural contributions made by Caribbean immigrants in America and other parts of the world.
Currently, she enjoys adding on to her list of books to be read and watching Indian movies, both old and new.