Helen Waller grew up in New Orleans, LA, attended Carlton for college and now lives and works in Yangon, Myanmar. I interviewed Helen in Yangon on her thoughts on being an ex-pat and what she loves most about her new home and career. Plus she offers a bit of advice for those considering a move abroad.
AA: Why Myanmar?
HW: Myanmar found me. I met a young Burmese boy in a ballroom dance class in college. There was also a Burmese girl who lived in my dorm and did a fundraiser following Cyclone Nargis. Senior year of college I was applying for teaching programs all over the world but was encouraged to apply to teach at the Pre-Collegiate Program in Yangon by my dance partner who had been a member of the first batch. I was interested in their experiential learning model and impressed that so many graduates returned to reinvest their skills in Myanmar, I had to know how they did it.
AA: Where do you work?
HW: I’m a teacher for at the Pre-Collegiate Program (PCP). It’s a college prep program for Burmese students from both public and private high schools who desire a liberal arts education, which is rare in Asia. In addition to teaching a variety of academic subjects, we hope to instill life skills that will help these students thrive in college, in their career and beyond. To this end, service learning is incorporated into the curriculum, as well as regular speakers and field trips, plus a 4-month internship at the end of their studies.
AA: What is your role at PCP?
HW: In 2011 I began as a literature teacher, shadowed the service work leader, and counseled students on college admissions. Over time, I changed my subject to environmental biology, began organizing field trips, and managed the schedule. In 2015 I became the Lead Teacher. In addition to my teaching and previous responsibilities, I manage hiring, external relations, strategic development, alumni engagement, and college correspondence.
AA: How was it to build a life in Myanmar?
HW: Living here has made me find creative solutions both physically and emotionally. When I arrived, I had to learn how to live on rice and eat while dripping sweat. I was lucky to meet young people who were alumni of the program. My coworker, Lin, introduced me to his friends who soon became mine. I also went searching for friends at regular expat hangouts such as the Hash House Harriers.
AA: What do you like about living in Myanmar?
HW: People make time for friendships here. You can learn something new and interesting daily. It also forces you to continue to build on the knowledge of a place you’ve been living in. I love my work and find it very compelling. Being with my students makes any day better; the kids are endearing and excruciatingly cleaver. Witnessing their progress is truly rewarding – as is helping the institution grow.
AA: What was your hardest adjustment moving here?
HW: Since I moved here directly after college, evolving from a student to a teacher and taking my responsibility seriously was a challenge. I had to grow up a lot.
AA: What are parts of Myanmar life that you enjoy most?
HW: Eating rice and spicy foods, wearing colorful clothes, and spending slow mornings drinking tea at a tea shop. I also enjoy going to the gym and spending time with friends at beer & BBQ spots, tea shops and events. There are certain life rhythms I think all young people (anyone of any age for that matter) need to follow, and though my venue my be a little different, I still try to hit the same beats.
AA: You’ve been here four years in June. What has kept you here so long?
HW: The quality of my friendships, and having work I’m proud of daily. I really love what I do.
AA: So what’s next?
HW: Oh dear… I’d like to see this program become more stable and secure. After that, I’d like to take time to explore. I have dreams of a six-month globe trot and beyond that, I’m thinking to explore some fields beyond teaching and administration. I love teaching but I’d also like to try working in a CBO. I’m interested in studying further or even going into government or legislative work. Urban Planning has a great allure, and I could always go to medical school.
AA: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to live abroad?
HW: If you’re hesitating, think about why. It’s not as hard as you think to change how you eat, greet people, and live out the rhythms of your day. That said, don’t let your old home life and goals escape you. Living abroad should not be about procrastinating. It’s about taking your life further. Also, don’t kid yourself (nor be ashamed), there are going to be growing pains. But it’s exciting to know you’re getting “taller”. It’s good to keep pushing your comfort zone.
AA: What do you miss about home?
HW: I would like it to be able to catch up with family and friends without doing some fancy timezone footwork. And cold weather. Some days, all you want is a breath of dry air with a little bit of bite to it.
To learn more about the Pre-Collegiate Program in Yangon, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/precollegiateprogram or view this video: www.facebook.com/precollegiateprogram/videos/10153550111637510/