Bastion of learning

0
366
Photos by Rasmus Steijner.

An old education institution has moved to a new location in Yangon, where it hopes to continue its rich legacy.

On March 21, 2018, the American Center Yangon moved its facilities uptown. A stone’s throw from the US Embassy, at the intersection of Inya Road and University Avenue, sits the new, state-of- the-art, American Center Yangon or “the AC,” as it is affectionately known by its members.

The new center is a far cry from its humble roots as the United States Information Service (USIS) Library, opened in 1949 near the original downtown American Embassy. The library was filled with reference books, novels, sheet music, and other American publications. However, when General Ne Win’s military control took over the library systems in 1966, the
USIS Library adapted to a completely new role. General Ne Win’s Public Museum Law (1966) instituted a regulation that all museums and libraries needed special licenses to operate as public centers. In this climate, the privately controlled, embassy-supported USIS Library became a clandestine bastion for learning, where locals and expats could get
uncensored books and reference materials.

In 1982, the library moved to a new compound in Yangon’s Dagon Township, and in 1993, the center expanded its outreach efforts as part of the global network of American centers. This center was an oasis of learning resources during the decades that Myanmar was shut off from the world. Interested Burmese locals, who could not otherwise obtain foreign
learning materials, could access resources such as English language training and a vast library. They could also join clubs based on debate, democratic values, tolerance, and ethnic and religious diversity. These unique features made the American Center immensely popular with adults keen to discover the world beyond Burmese borders. In the US Embassy-produced documentary, American Center Yangon: An Oral History, American Center members recount their experiences using the center as a safe harbor to discuss politics and democracy, and also to speak openly about current affairs in Burma.

The new incarnation on University Avenue hopes to continue its legacy as a valuable information center while also expanding services, programs, and membership access. According to US Embassy statistics, the American Center Yangon (ACY) is the one of the most visited out of 105 American Centers globally. In recognition of this tremendous local support, the new ACY is endowed with the largest financial investment of any AC building in
the world.

“This investment is a reflection of the decades of support by the Myanmar people,” said ACY director Marcy Carrel. With its spacious foyers, modern furniture and design, classrooms equipped with smart boards and audiovisual technology, and a full-service café, the new AC resembles a community center more than a school.

“We wanted an immersion experience where students could move around freely, innovate, and spark conversations that create inclusion, tolerance, and creativity,” added Carrel. The ACY houses the English Language Program (ELP) and the Institute for Political and Civic Engagement (iPACE), both managed by World Learning in close cooperation with and
support from the US Embassy. The outcome is academic English to prepare for university abroad or workplace skills and experience, but the conduit is experiential learning.

Sandar Oo, an ELP teacher, said courses offer unique advantages outside of the traditional Myanmar education model. “Encouraging multiple perspectives is so important. We need people who can think critically and creatively for the future of our country.”

Before Myanmar’s democratic government transition, impassioned citizens’ only means of engaging with their public leaders was through protest. The iPACE program is designed to foster political involvement and civic action. Now that Myanmar citizens can engage with lawmakers in a new way, iPACE wants to support them through free courses to develop skills and approaches to productively collaborate in Myanmar’s nascent democratic political landscape. World Learning Myanmar representative Gretchen Kunze explained that the program is tailored to help “democratic advocates,” such as civil society leaders, political party members, and former political prisoners, to build the skills needed for their work.
Currently, iPACE has over 2,200 alumni from every state and region in Myanmar.

Since its inception, the AC library has been the heartbeat of the center. The library currently has 17,000 registered members, which library director Kyaw Khaing attributes to its easy, low-cost accessibility. Prospective members gain access by paying a 5,000 kyat annual fee along with a valid, official photo ID to get a library card that’s printed instantaneously. In its first 10 days of opening, the library welcomed 5,192 visitors and 584 new memberships.

With the new ACY’s close proximity to Yangon University, Dr. John Groch, a US Embassy spokesperson, looks forward to partnership opportunities and synergy between the educational institutions. As for his future hopes for the new center, Dr. Groch says, “Activities and audiences will change as patron use and student demographics shift, but the ACY will continue to be a physical embodiment of the friendship between the people of the United States and Myanmar.”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here