The students thought it was a graduation.

However the staff and faculty knew the truth. It was really a funeral.


The graduation address by the university’s president also functioned as a eulogy.

He had arranged for moving trucks to arrive at 10:45am the very next morning to take everything away.

All the books, the shelves, tables and desks, computers, the donated laptops…

Somehow only the garish low-hanging chandeliers (low enough for even a short person to bump their head on) and Trumpian gold-painted, crimson cushioned thrones would remain.


Liberty against a brick wall  (American University of Myanmar)


Now the sun wants to rise as brightly
as if nothing terrible had happened during the night.
The misfortune had happened only to me,
but the sun shines equally on everyone.
You must not enfold the night in you.
You must sink it in eternal light.
A little star went out in my tent!
Greetings to the joyful light of the world.


-Excerpt from Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler


Today it’s the morning after.

When the parents were taking photos of their smiling graduates, we (the faculty and staff) stood and smiled along with them.

It was only our second graduation in four years.

As a private, non-profit university, we were not allowed by Myanmar’s government to actually register students for the BA and MA programs we aimed to create. Instead, we were allowed to offer GED test preparation, a path towards gaining an American high-school equivalency degree.

When I arrived in Myanmar in late 2016, I didn’t yet understand.

For those who can’t afford an expensive international school education, obtaining an American GED (along with good SAT and TOEFL scores) is one way forward in trying to get accepted into an overseas university. Many dream of somehow (against all odds) obtaining a full scholarship, not realizing that airfare, housing, and living costs are still often woefully out of reach.

Students lined up for graduation (American University of Myanmar)

“How sad,” I thought. “…that a university would be reduced to teaching secondary school basics.” 

And then I proceeded to look for ways I could teach my area of expertise, digital media.

But my field does not exist in Myanmar, at least not in any universities.

In the government-run Myanmar universities, syllabi are handed down by the government. Locals and foreigners alike cannot just come in and create a new program or even new courses for that matter.

One certainly can’t change or revise anything.

Professors in Myanmar are not encouraged to do research, are not trained to international standards, and most are paid only between $200-$300 USD a month.

You do meet the occasional kind-hearted foreign professor or teacher (self included) who will volunteer a workshop, masterclass, or course series for a fraction of what they would be paid elsewhere.

High -school in Myanmar goes up to grade 10. Students can take a national matriculation exam which measures how much information they were able to memorize. Only about 30% pass.

For those who pass, they might be able to go to university. However degrees from Myanmar’s universities are not recognized outside of the country. 

As a young person in Myanmar today, unless you are one of the fortunate few able to afford a degree from an expensive international school, your career and future prospects are very narrow.

Let me pause to tell you that I’m angry.

But I cannot count all the ways. Not right now.

There is nothing as frustrating as being someone with the skills and will to help but not being allowed to help. Like a surgeon trapped behind a glass wall as a patient on the other side bleeds to death…

Let me also pause to tell you that I am writing this blog post as someone still living in Myanmar.

I fully appreciate learning first-hand what it’s like to live somewhere where you need to be careful of what you say and how you say it. Though I’ve lived and worked in a number of troubled countries, I thank Myanmar for this particular lesson. It increases my empathy for what many around the world face year after year, decade after decade until an entire lifetime has passed.

A colleague once told me a joke he heard in the 90s back when the military government was still the only show in town:

A Myanmar person flies to Bangkok to see a dentist due to a painful toothache he was having.

The Thai dentist looks at the man incredulously and asks, ‘Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?’

The man replies. ‘We do. But we’re not allowed to open our mouths.’


It challenges my inborn American optimism that good things are going to happen because they should happen. The university should not be closing… but it IS closing.

No more last minute miracles can now save it.

(Americans just love last minute miracles. It adds to the drama… Too many Hollywood endings perhaps?)

I was telling a local this morning about the university’s goals and found myself getting choked up as I explained how bright students without financial means could have attended for every two paying students through scholarships. It would have been a tiny but radical shift for Myanmar, the country that has the largest gap between rich and poor in the world.

When I first became involved with American University of Myanmar, I was asked to make a video that would encourage donors outside of Myanmar to support our cause. This was the result:



Myanmar, even just over a year ago once captured the world’s imagination as a place where things were starting to look up. Today it’s a different story. Few external would-be donors have the enthusiasm they once did for investing in the country.

Maybe someday someone else will try again and pick up where the university left off. Were we 50 years ahead of our time? 500?

The American optimist in me hopes that it will take much less time than that.

I did manage to teach around Yangon over the past year and a half as a consultant through American University of Myanmar. Current and recent clients include The UN’s World Food Programme, Thalun International School, AustCham Myanmar, Myanmar Women’s Entrepreneurs Association, Myanmar Metropolitan College, and Mango Group.

I now even find myself teaching digital media (finally!) albeit to Burmese and international children between the ages of 9 and 16. They are learning how to blog, think critically, and express themselves through writing, imagery, and even animation.

Inspired by their lack of cynicism,  I asked them to make animated vision boards so they can think about their goals and set out to achieve them.

One of my students is a shy but studious Burmese 9th grader named Anne. She writes:

There will always be harsh criticism, difficulties, temptations, and insecurities. Those who would oppose you or bring you down definitely exist too. You will struggle with many problems. Don’t let them bring you down. These are what make you grow into a better and stronger person… A better person whom others look up to and adore. If you know that you have the potential to accomplish your goals, just do it.

And one of her classmates, another young Myanmar citizen named Sabrina created this using free animation software:



So no, things didn’t turn out the way we wanted for American University of Myanmar.

But I wouldn’t be a true American if I didn’t also try to end my reflections on a positive note.

While my university has closed its doors forever today, there are many young people who will not allow lack of opportunities to deter them from trying to achieve their goals. Most want to help develop their country and contribute to their communities and help the less fortunate as well.

It’s my hope that Myanmar will one day prevent and stave off brain drain by creating the conditions needed for international-standard universities and schools to operate inside the country and that all bright would-be students can attend regardless of how much money their families have or do not have.

Myanmar’s biggest strength is its people.

Give them a reason to stay.


Tree of Knowledge. Myanmar


Read American University of Myanmar’s official notice to the people of Myanmar about its closure.