Enabling Opportunities in Mae Sot: Volunteering on the Thai-Burma Border

Enabling Opportunities in Mae Sot: Volunteering on the Thai-Burma Border

Palms Australia volunteer Rosaleen Smyth has been teaching students in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border as part of the Australian Catholic University’s Diploma in Liberal Studies course, designed for refugees from Myanmar, since 2013.

I am now in my sixth year as a volunteer tutor for the Diploma in Liberal Studies program, offered by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) to Myanmar refugees and migrants on the Thai-Burma border. In 2014 I was made an Honorary Fellow of the ACU.

I am now supporting my fourth cohort of Diploma students. Currently we have 38 students: 27 dormitory students and 11 working students. The working students’ tutorials are conducted separately; they come on one weeknight and on Saturday mornings. I have a busy schedule!

What are some of the highlights? Well, it is gratifying to see some of my former students playing a crucial role in the development of their communities in non-government or community-based welfare organisations like World Vision, Association for Aid and Relief Japan, Finn Church AID, the Karen Human Rights Group, Life Impact International, Help Without Frontiers, the Mae Tao Clinic and the Children’s Development Centre (CDC). A 2013 graduate is currently working as a Protection Associate with the UNHCR in Yangon.

ACU Mae Sot Graduating Class of 2017
Graduating Class of 2017

Another highlight would be my role in helping to facilitate ACU’s link with The Education University of Hong Kong (EduHK), where five ACU graduates are now studying on scholarships.

In November 2017, while one of my students, Muriel Valles was, was on exchange at the University of Wollongong, she was interviewed on ABC radio. The interview was part of a program in which Geraldine Doogue discussed the Thai-Burma border program with Prof. Michael Ondaatje (Head of the ACU’s National School of Arts) Maya Cranitch and Dr. Duncan Cook. In the discussion, the point was made that the ACU Diploma is the only tertiary program that provides internationally accredited qualifications allowing refugee students to progress to further study.

ACU student Muriel with Governor of NSW
Muriel Valles with the former Governor of NSW, David Hurley

In 2017, two graduates from the program won scholarships to the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Some of my students have also taken up further study at the Asia-Pacific International University, Rangsit University in Bangkok, The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok and Chiang Mai University. Dr. Shirley Worland, an Australian lecturer in Social Science at Chiang Mai University and a Research Fellow at the ACU, has provided inspirational support and encouragement to ACU graduates studying at Chiang Mai University.

Some graduates now working in the community development sector are continuing their tertiary education with the University of the People (UoP), an accredited American online university that offers undergraduate degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science and Health Science. UoP conducted a successful recruiting drive in Mae Sot in December 2016. ACU graduates who are studying online with UoP gained admission on the basis of their ACU Diploma, and are very satisfied with the quality of this educational experience.

I couldn’t stop without mentioning how fascinating it is to engage with these students who have triumphed over so many obstacles just to make it to the ACU Study Centre in Mae Sot. On their arrival they are each provided with a computer (some a bit rickety and showing their age) and suddenly, courtesy of Wi-Fi, they get connected with the virtual world and step onto the first rung of the tertiary education ladder.

How different this is from my initiation into tertiary education when I arrived at Sancta Sophia College at Sydney University from Wagga Wagga in 1957. Television was in its infancy and the electric typewriter had not yet been invented.


You can support placements like Rosaleen’s by making a donation or applying to volunteer.