“I’d never done camping before,” she said of her Outdoor Orientation Program trip to Baxter State Park. “I had never hiked as steeply as the trail up Doubletop Mountain, never slided through a waterfall before. I never knew what s’mores were.”

Moe Myat ZarChi on her OOPs trip.Moe Myat ZarChi on her OOPs trip.

Moe was born in 1994 and grew up in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma.

Moe said the educational system in Myanmar funnels its best students into the medical profession. The examination for higher education takes place once a year after two weeks of intensive study. “In our country,” she said, “only if you get accepted to medical college will people look up to you.”

Although she had high marks in mathematics and her other classes, Moe did not want to be a doctor. Most of her friends from high school are now on the path to medical training, except for those who decided to leave the country for college.

Moe decided to look outside of Myanmar for a liberal arts education. She took two years off, after high school, to teach herself filmmaking and consider her options. She made short, narrative films, and plans to continue with that work in her personal time during and after college.

In her two-year gap time, she learned about a one-year program that prepares students in Myanmar to attend schools in the U.S. In addition to classes in literature, environmental science,sociology, philosophy and history, Moe learned how to apply to U.S. schools and seek financial aid. There were 15 students in the intensive training program.

“It was really challenging,” she said.

At the start of her college search, Moe was directed toward large universities “… with football teams, cheerleaders, and clubs. I thought I needed some time to reflect on myself and know what I want.

“I wanted someplace that would make me happy, like a very beautiful place, like COA,” she said. “Also, I wanted a place where I can direct my own curriculum, rather than follow an established path. I wanted to challenge myself.” She began to look at schools in the Northeast and Northwest, where she might be near mountains and the coast.

She considered Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., and another school outside Tacoma, Wash. She said the programs were similar, but the beauty of Bar Harbor’s natural setting drew her to COA.

Three weeks into her first term at COA, Moe said she is surprised by how much she misses urban life. She said the closeness of the community here is new to her and, while it is a good thing, it has lessons for her to learn that may be as challenging as her classes in chemistry, art and design, and human ecology.

Those challenges, and the intriguing names of other courses in the catalog, are what will keep her here, she said.

“The professors are really informative and different,” Moe said. “I can go to city life during breaks.”

While at COA, Moe plans to focus on urban design.

Moe is joined at COA by her friend Htoo Tha Dar (pronounced “too ta dar”), a fellow citizen of Myanmar who received his early and secondary education in Singapore.

Htoo Tha Dar, a musician and first-year student from Myanmar who received his early and secondary education in Singapore, spent time on his OOPs trip perched on a rock, among his fellow student. He said he was surprised to find he likes sharing a dormitory room. “It’s much more entertaining than living alone,” he said.
Htoo Tha Dar, a musician and first-year student from Myanmar who received his early and secondary education in Singapore, spent time on his OOPs trip perched on a rock, among his fellow students. He said he was surprised to find he likes sharing a dormitory room. “It’s much more entertaining than living alone,” he said.

Three years ago, when Htoo returned to Myanmar, the pair reconnected and decided to try to find a college in the U.S. where they could both thrive.

Htoo also found challenges and rewards during the orientation trip. The week spent sea kayaking challenged him by putting him into an environment of fog, big waves, and mosquitoes.

“We had to poop in a bag,” he said, adding that eating, perched on a rock, among his fellow students made each day memorable and special.

Htoo said he was surprised to find he likes sharing a dormitory room. “It’s much more entertaining than living alone,” he said.

Both of them like the food at COA. “They even serve Asian food,” Moe said after a supper that included nori-wrapped sushi. “How amazing is that?”

The education that started in Baxter State Park is already changing how Moe looks at and experiences life. She said s’mores are now her favorite food. The people she met in that first week are becoming her friends. She said that first week of living closely in tents, being dirtier than she’s ever been before, made her “feel like home.”

But mostly, she feels welcomed in an educational environment that invites her to write her own future.

“I have my own education in my hands,” she said.

Shlomit Auciello is a nontraditional transfer student at College of the Atlantic and a member of the COA News Team. Now 61, she spent her 40 gap years writing, raising a family, running a small business and reporting for small newspapers. She met Moe Myat ZarChi during their OOPs trip to Baxter State Park.

 


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