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Counting Your Blessings

Students and staff at the Higher Education Center

Using Your Blessings

By Fr. Neil Magill

The Higher Education Center [HEC] is for poor but bright young women and men who cannot afford further education after high school. In the beginning, over nine years ago now, we took 30 young people for the three year course to train them as teachers and development workers. Due to the generosity of overseas benefactors, I was able to add additional classrooms so now we can take 50 each year with a total of 150.

Last year 127 young enthusiastic people, hungry for an education, came from across Myanmar to sit the entrance exam knowing we could only accept 50. Those who were not accepted, not because of their academic ability but due to lack of available accommodation, left crying. Every year this happens, and it breaks my heart and leaves me crying.

Cecilia was accepted but as the time drew near to begin the academic year she contacted me to say she could not come. On asking why she reluctantly said her mother could not afford to make the contribution of $100 for the year which includes tuition, food, accommodation and books. To cover all expenses including salaries for teachers it takes $700 for each student for a year, and I depend on generous benefactors. I told her to come, and I would look for a sponsor. Cecilia is not the exception. Many of our students are from refugee camps [IDP camps – Internally Displaced People because of the ongoing war] so I look for scholarships for them and for some who are from orphanages. Now Cecilia is in her second year and flourishing in her studies of English, Computers, Ethics, Human Rights and other subjects. She is very grateful, and I know she will help other young people when she graduates.

Each day begins with Mass at 6:30 a.m. After breakfast all students clean the HEC inside and outside while singing joyously. They keep the building which is 105 years old clean and tidy. Then from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. they have various classes with a break for lunch. Before dinner at 6 p.m. they have free time, and the boys play football, and the girls exercise. Night study is from 7 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. with ten minute breaks every hour from Monday to Friday. On Saturday night they watch a movie.

Our HEC's mission is the human, spiritual, moral, social and intellectual development of all the young women and men aged 18-21. In addition to giving them a good intellectual education we also give them solid faith and personal formation. They are ambassadors of their faith who confidently share their knowledge and are committed to compassionate service rooted in Gospel values and Catholic Social Teaching. They are "for others with others." A highlight of their week is on Saturdays when they go in our old HEC truck to various locations to help others. Some students teach children in Buddhist monasteries, others go to orphanages to teach and play with the children and others go to a leper colony to visit and chat with the lepers. They assure the lepers that they have not been forgotten.

The HEC is a happy and safe place, and the students refer to it as their second home. During a recent holiday break many did not go home but remained to paint the classrooms and dormitories. They told me they wanted to do this to show appreciation and save money for the HEC. I wonder if students in other countries would do this! Our students' attitude is "if we have received much, much is expected from us." They not only count their blessings but use their blessings to empower others. They do this with cheerful smiles and joyous hearts. Thank you for helping make their dreams come true.

Columban Fr. Neil Magill lives and works in Myanmar.