Living and Working with the Brothers in Myanmar

The Lasallian Vandhu Paaru, or “Come and See” program offers faculty and staff the opportunity to help the Brothers provide needed education in developing countries.
In Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), fluency in English and computer knowledge are in high demand for students looking to find well-paying jobs. SEBA Professors Judith White and Saroja Subrahmanyan were both able to spend a couple of weeks teaching there last year as part of the Lasallian Vandhu Paaru, or “Come and See” program, in which faculty and staff work to help provide needed education in developing countries.

White, associate professor of management, was able to go on her sixth visit in 18 years, from July 14 to Aug, 9, while Saroja Subrahmanyan, marketing professor and executive director for the Elfenworks Center for Responsible Business, visited from Oct. 11 to Nov. 6.

The Lasallian Learning Center in Yangon has two programs, a large English program where about 140 students take a series of three-month modules of English, and a much smaller cohort of students study in a 10-month, 10-module business administration diploma program, which is set up and primarily taught by faculty from a Lasallian business school in the Philippines. Both White and Subrahmanyan taught in the business administration diploma program.

A special element of the Vandhu Paaru program is the opportunity to live among the Brothers at their compound in Yangon, where a group of four to five younger Brothers are studying and preparing to take their full vows, and four to five older Brothers, aged 35 to 80, are involved in various other projects. The Brothers’ compound is located in the north part of Yangon, on a small finger of the large Inya Lake.

 Breakfast is at 7 a.m., and dinner is at 7 p.m., seven days a week. During White’s time there, two young American Brothers from the Midwest came to visit, and another Brother from India who lives in Rome came on LaSallian business. She also visited with three Brothers at their compound in Maymyo, or Pyin Oo Lwin, about an hour northeast of Mandalay.

Subrahmanyan said she had a wonderful time as well. The Brothers at LaSalle House made her feel welcome. On most days, she joined the brothers for breakfast and dinner. She found it interesting and humbling to observe the simple and dedicated (to teaching and LaSallian faith) life the Brothers lead there. Also interesting to her was to experience living in a Christian community when the majority of the Yangon is Buddhist. In fact, there was a constant Buddhist chanting in the background starting at 6 a.m. On most days, she said she didn't need an alarm clock to wake her up.

Self-study reports talk about being LaSallian (for tenure and promotion), so she was curious to hear what LaSallian meant to the Brothers who were living the faith. Brother Leonard, who has been a LaSallian Brother since before Subrahmanyan was born, just laughed when she asked, saying, "This is my life." She said she was impressed by their dedication to keeping the teaching and faith alive even after the military takeover of schools in the early 1960s.

Toward the end of her visit, Subrahmanyan developed the stomach flu. During this time, Brother Leonard checked often to see if she was okay, even having the cook make daal for her. She felt like part of the family by the time she was done with her visit.

The Classroom Experience

In Maymyo, the Brothers have a hostel where they provide room, board, and supplemental classes for about 80 boys in elementary and high school.

While there, White taught business ethics and organizational behavior in the business administration diploma program with a cohort of 14 students, mostly in their early 20s. None of the students had business degrees, a few had work experience, and most had taken only a few college-level courses through Myanmar’s distance learning university program. The students’ English language competencies varied, depending on their education prior to studying at the LaSalle Center.

The students were enthusiastic and eager to learn, particularly because they knew there would be future opportunities for them to work in the changing landscape of business in Myanmar’s emerging market. White taught classes five hours a day, five days a week. Every day the seven to 10 faculty and staff ate lunch together.

Being on sabbatical, Subrahmanyan thought she was going to teach Marketing Research in the fall as she normally does to Saint Mary’s MBA students. She found it ironic to end up teaching this year. too, but instead, she found herself on the other side of the world, where she had to quickly come up with relevant examples for students there.

Since internet connections were slow (and there was absolutely no internet at the Learning Center), it was challenging. She managed to find examples by reading newspapers and traveling around the city on her own, observing the world around her. She was able to connect with the director of the Myanmar Survey Research, and then took students on a field visit to their focus group facility, which the students seemed to love, after which, they were invited to apply for jobs if they were interested.

Her students did a two-phased project. Phase 1 was the qualitative research and Phase 2 was survey design and research. Since students had very diverse backgrounds (from just having completed high school and earning a diploma to those who had completed an undergrad degree in English), Subrahmanyan had to continuously adapt how she taught, including teaching statistics to this diverse group and data analysis in Excel.

"One student sent me an email after the course saying she would like to express her gratitude again for the marketing class that enhanced her math knowledge," she said. The student shared, "Being an English major, math has been always a shunned subject. But I am glad that now that I understand there are stories and facts behind the numbers."

The students were very enthusiastic and eager to learn. Some of them also wanted to accompany her on her weekend explorations of the city. She was able to give a yoga lesson on the floor to a few students on the last day. Since many students wear lungyis, it wasn't always conducive to give such lessons, although they had done a chair yoga lesson previously.

Signs of Cautious Reform in Burma

On some of the evenings and weekends when she was in Myanmar, White visited with Burmese friends, some of whom had been participants in her earlier study of moral courage in the Burmese human rights and democracy movement. She was eager to hear their views of the status of democratic reforms and the upcoming election (held Nov. 8, when the opposition pro-democracy party won a very large majority of the seats in Parliament).

She also met with American friends who work at NGO’s, doing rural development and capacity building work. As this was her sixth visit to Myanmar in 18 years, she said it was especially gratifying to see the increasingly higher levels of free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. She noticed a lot of new construction of office buildings, hotels, and condominiums, bringing with it heavy traffic, air pollution, and higher real estate and hotel prices. The country still suffers from severe poverty, endemic corruption, and an undercurrent of fear that the military and police will reverse reforms at any time. Most Burmese people are waiting to see how the transition from military to democratically elected leadership will unfold, and to what extent it will improve the economy. No one expects overnight prosperity, but the students at the LaSalle Learning Center, after being taught new skills, are that much more equipped to meet the requirements for jobs in the new economy, whatever form it takes.

"In the last week of my Myanmar visit, I was able to sample a bit of the rest of the country,” said Subrahmayan. “The country is so diverse geographically, culturally and ethnically. I visited Bagan and Inle Lake for a few days.”

She left a day before the elections, but was not surprised at how calm the atmosphere was. “Everyone I knew was openly supporting NLD. Everyone wanted change, economic progress, and peace between ethnic groups. On a humorous note, in a focus group I did, everyone said they had heard of McDonald’s, even though there is no McDonald’s in Myanmar.”