One of the students in this article is still in Myanmar. Their name has been changed to protect their identity from the Burmese military.
From the moment she wakes up to the moment she falls asleep, May Thiri Kyaw is on Instagram checking the news from Myanmar to see who has been arrested, if her mom is ok, if anyone has been shot or if more propaganda has been spread or if the internet has been cut off.
Kyaw is one of several international students from Myanmar attending Cal Poly whose world has been entirely consumed by a fear of the unknown.
On Feb. 1, the Myanmar military staged a coup after the election of Aung San Suu Kyi. Following this, the military cut off access to the internet for two days. The students at Cal Poly are only able to contact their families and friends in Myanmar through VPNs — virtual private networks — that their families are using in the country.
Since then, citizens have been protesting in the streets for international attention and hoping that the military will not gain control of the country again.
“Because I’m here, I also feel like I’m not doing enough because I feel like I’m living in luxury right now,” Kyaw said. “Every time I find myself having fun, I feel really guilty.”
Kyaw is a junior civil engineer major and treasurer for Cal Poly’s Burmese Student Association (BurSA). Board members of the club have been trying to spread awareness of the issues that are happening as well as seek support from Cal Poly’s administration.
Computer science junior Eddie Aung said he was also shocked when he heard about the coup — especially since the country had been transitioning towards becoming more democratic for almost ten years.
“I also feel powerless because I’m right here right in the United States,” Aung said. “Big things are happening in Myanmar and I couldn’t do anything for them. I cannot do anything for them.”
Aung suspected that the government was tapping phone calls. When the coup first happened, Aung tried to call his mom and a man’s voice answered the phone and asked him questions in English.
“I’m just calling my mom,” Aung said. “There is no reason for you to listen to her.”
Aung said a great fear of his is that the internet will be cut off again and he will be unable to contact his family, or that his family will be hurt.
“I am afraid that they’ll get shot at the protests,” Aung said.
In Myanmar, eight Cal Poly international students were taking classes virtually before the coup, and several of them are still enrolled in virtual classes. Megan is taking two quarters off while she is protesting in Myanmar. Due to the internet being cut off in Myanmar, Megan could not comment.
A large concern for Burmese international students in San Luis Obispo is gaining access to money. The Myanmar economy is shut down and the Myanmar military has cut off access to all banks except those controlled by the military.
Students’ parents cannot wire them money for tuition, housing and other things they need. If the students are unable to pay for the next quarter, they are not legally allowed to be in the country on a student visa. However, they also cannot return to their country, and it is uncertain as to when the coup will be resolved.
Members of BurSA have been working with the administration to see what accommodations the university can offer, but the process is slow-going.
“I still just feel very frustrated on how little [the Cal Poly administration] seem to care sometimes,” Kyaw said.
University spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News that the International Center has worked with colleges and departments in which Burmese students are enrolled to let them know that these students may require accommodations due to difficulty accessing virtual classes or for increased stress over the situation.
“While we cannot share the outcome of individual student’s requests, the university makes every attempt to help students,” Lazier said. “Due to limited resources, we are not able to fund every request.”
Cal Poly student accounts granted the students who were seeking help a grace period until April for when they have to pay for tuition. Club members along with their adviser and botany professor Nishi Rajakaruna are currently working with administration officials to push for a longer grace period.
However, the international Burmese students are left without answers about what their futures will hold over the summer when students are not in school as well as in the fall when students still might not have access to money.
According to Rajakaruna, one of the members of BurSA will only have $100 in his bank account after he pays rent for this month.
Rajakaruna said that the best thing that the students can do is to take each issue one step at a time and keep the administrators at International Programs and Student Financial Services well-informed.
“We have had meetings with all relevant parties at Cal Poly who can help the students with the financial difficulties and other problems they face,” Rajakaruna said. “I am feeling optimistic that Cal Poly will do what needs [to be] done quickly to relieve some of the stress the students are feeling.”
Having been a foreign student himself, Rajakaruna understands how complicated life is for international students, even without the coup.
“It is not easy navigating life as a foreign student and a crisis at home can leave you feeling helpless,” Rajakaruna said. “We need to come together as a community and do what we can to let the students know we care and that we want to help.”
The Burmese students who are in this situation are being told to go to student accounts and deal with each situation individually.
Architecture junior and vice president for Bursa Ei Ei Chaw Swe said the constant headlines, as well as the stress about the financial instability, are emotionally draining.
“I feel like I don’t have the motivation or the energy,” Swe said
The students are also worried about how the country is being perceived. Computer science sophomore Sophia Hsuan said that she is proud of how the people in her country have acted during the protests.
“I kind of wish that there’s a way for them to see how good the citizens are right now,” Hsuan said. “The country itself has a lot of really bad issues, but right now, everyone is just kind of putting all that aside and they’re working together so well which I’m really, really, proud of.”