By RACHEL FRADETTE
The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Peng Thang can’t remember everything about his family’s trek to safety after they fled his village of Zephai to the capital city in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
It was mostly a blur, he said. What he does remember is making a tiring journey on foot out of Myanmar before eventually seeking refuge in Malaysia. A year later, in 2007, the family left for the United States.
As a refugee, his English language skills were brand-new, and school for the then-12 year old was a challenge.
In high school, Thang found a program offered by the Burmese American Community Institute to help him with his homework and questions about his future.
The first in his family to attend college, Thang went off to Indiana University. He returned to programming at BACI shortly after he left it.
The mentee is now the mentor, and he’s not the only one. More than half of BACI’s current mentors are former mentees in the program.
Thang now sits with students in a Southport High School classroom on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, where he and mentees go over homework, talk about goals and learn college readiness skills.
“It’s just a really good community to work with because we’re all so close with each other,” Thang said.
Like Thang, Burmese Hoosiers who have spent half or more of their lives in the United States face a number of hurdles while adjusting, said Elaisa Vahnie, the institute’s executive director.
For the last decade, they have sought to narrow achievement gaps, especially for Burmese refugees. Although the program focuses on this community, it’s open to students of all backgrounds.
The resettlement of Burmese refugees throughout Perry Township, where BACI is based, has contributed to a significant rise in the area’s Asian community. With that growth, BACI looked for a way to connect with young people who would be among the first in their families to attend higher education and some K-12 schools.
December Tling, a mentee in the program, is considering her options: college, becoming a flight attendant or enlisting in the Armed Forces. If she chooses college, she would be the first in her family to do so.
While COVID-19 changed her high school experience, Tling said her biggest challenge came in dealing with all of the moving parts in her life, like her family on the run in her native Myanmar since the military coup.
Shared knowledge and experiences from mentors make mentees more comfortable with still unfamiliar territory, Tling said.
“You’re truly not alone. You’re not the only person going through this.”