October 01, 2014
By Victoria Kidd
Su “Sandi” Aung ’13 grew up in the second capital city of Yangon (formally Rangoon) in the country of Myanmar (formally Burma). A former British colony, the Southeast Asian country has struggled with its national identity-and therefore, its name-for the better part of a century. Even present-day maps refer to the country by both names. But when it came time for college, Aung was fixed on another part of the globe-the United States, and specifically the East Coast.
“I knew I wanted to come to the states … because of the many great colleges I had researched, but mainly because America supports the freedom of speech and education,” says Aung.
As the only Burmese student at Susquehanna her first year, Aung experienced a difficult transition, immersing herself in a culture so different from her own. From changes in the climate and cultural norms to new holidays and jet lag from her 25-hour flight, Aung had a good deal of culture shock to overcome when she arrived on campus.
Growing up in the delta region of Myanmar, Aung says it was mostly hot and humid all year round. “There is summer, monsoon and winter, but winter is an understatement since we don’t have snow, except in the north.”
In Myanmar, Buddhism is the prevailing religion, and each October Burmese families celebrate the homage-paying ceremony of Thatinkyut. April brings their New Year celebration, complete with an annual water festival called Thingyan Festival. “The idea is to cleanse the past year’s dirt and troubles away,” explains Aung, who found neither of these traditional holidays widely celebrated in the United States.
Then there were the little things, like public transportation, that she sorely missed, especially when logistics and expense made it too difficult to even bring a bicycle to campus.
Even though she had attended an international high school that prepared her to study abroad, Aung knew little about American life before coming to Susquehanna. Her perception was based on movies, sports and TV shows. Her assumptions were that “Americans were food lovers, mischievous and not patient.” Those perceptions quickly changed when she arrived on campus and began meeting people who she found to be “very helpful, polite, patient and good listeners.”
Aung’s anxiety level was high at first, and she wasn’t sleeping much. Fortunately, the university’s counseling center recognized her stress and took action. “The counselor was very kind, and took time to get to know me and help me with my stress. My RA [resident assistant] was also very helpful, referred me to the right people and even helped me get a bike so I could get around campus easily.”
Once Aung began to find her footing, she also found Susquehanna’s International Club and a circle of friends as eager to learn about her culture as she was to learn about theirs. In time, Aung, who majored in graphic design and business, would become vice president of the student organization. She even became an RA and mentored international students who came to Susquehanna after her.
Through her Susquehanna education, Aung says she realized the importance of cultural competency for all students. “No one can survive and enjoy life by being alone, no matter how much they may think so,” she says. “I have always stayed open-minded to accept others and let others learn my culture and myself. Through sharing I have learned a lot of unique ways my American friends enjoy their culture, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Individually I got to experience [American culture] by being a part of the community, and when I share my memories and experiences with my family, that becomes an act of connecting the two worlds and becoming one.”
After graduation, Aung immersed herself in another new American experience-The Big Apple. She initially worked as a graphic designer at Broadstreet Productions in Manhattan. She has since begun a full-time Master of Fine Arts program at the New York School of Interior Design while continuing to do freelance work for Broadstreet.