Books for BurmaGAMBIER, Ohio (August 1, 2011)
Author J.A. Langford once said, "The only true equalizers in the world are books."
These words inspired Jack Whitacre '12 and Nikolas Tun '12, who helped open the doors to a new library in the Myittarwadi monastery in Yangon, Burma, complete with 400 books, an encyclopedia set, and magazines-all to widen educational opportunities for more than 400 children of ethnic minorities.
The library is a welcome asset in Burma, where the military government has eliminated many basic human rights, including freedom of speech and press. Only financially privileged children can attend private international schools to receive a decent education, according to Tun and Whitacre.
Children of ethnic minorities flock to monasteries in major cities such as Yangon to learn. Educating hundreds of students can be overwhelming for Buddhist monks, who typically do not receive outside assistance and have sparse instructional materials.
"Part of my inspiration for this came from working in the Kenyon library for the past few years-it was something I knew well," Whitacre said.
For Tun, a Yangon native, motivation was fueled by personal experience. Born into a lower middle class family, he was spared poverty and starvation, though he did spend twelve years of his life memorizing forty-year-old government-provided textbooks.
His interest in the project increased after he visited the monastery several times during the summer after his sophomore year.
"I noticed some students who were so desperate to learn English and so eager to know the outside world," he said. "But they can only read brainwashing government textbooks and old journals because these are the only cheap books available to them."
When they failed to receive grant money to complete the library, Tun and Whitacre decided to forge ahead independently. The students met with library and book preservation experts and devised a low-budget but effective organization strategy. They then raised about $2,000 for the necessary supplies through on-campus fundraisers and by sending letters to sponsors.
Whitacre said this project is the first of many he hopes to take on with a partner, roommate, and friend whose spirit motivates him along the way.
"For me, the most inspiring story is Nikolas," Whitacre said. "His work ethic is so strong. It's admirable how Nikolas is still very involved with Burma, even while living abroad."