10/11/2009 - The Strength of a Christian: One student's journey from Burma to Judson
JUDSON SPOTLIGHT ON...
One student's journey from Burma to Judson
Five years is a long time to wait...
Five years could seem like a lifetime. It's surely enough to make most normal people lose hope. But five years is exactly how long Ja Rawng Lasi had to wait before her dream of attending Judson College became a reality.
Now, with only two months left before her graduation, Lasi says she is happy with the decision she made years ago to attend the all women's institution. "It is peaceful here; there are no distractions.
I can study in peace. Judson is a close community. I feel that if I had gone to a larger university I would have become lonely and maybe not have graduated as quickly."
But Lasi's story is different than that of any other high school graduate dreaming of attending college. Her story began abroad, in Burma (now Myanmar), over 7,000 miles away from Judson College and her dream, at first, seemed vastly unattainable.
Near the Big River
Lasi grew up in Myitkyina, a capitol city in the northern most part of Myanmar. The name, Myitkyina, means "near the big river," for the city lies on the west bank of the northernmost river port and railways terminus in Myanmar. Myitkyina is the capitol city of Kachin State, the majority of whose 1.2 million inhabitants are known as ethnic Kachin - the ethnic group to which Lasi belongs.
Predominantly agricultural, Kachin State is under-developed in infrastructure and health care, barely meeting the needs of the people who live there and educational opportunities are extremely limited as a result of rigid government autonomy.
She is the only member of her immediate family that has never had Malaria - a disease which her father died of when Lasi was 18.
"In my country, we cannot talk in public about our government or about a president, as people in America do," said Lasi. "Our country is "closed." We have no freedom of speech."
Despite all of this, Lasi loves the close-knit community of her home state and her church, where she spent most of her time growing up. In Kachin State, government statistics show that 58 percent of the population is Buddhist, while 36 percent is Christian. Lasi is a third generation Christian and her religion immediately gave her a unique connection to Judson College.
The Legacy of a Judson
Ann Hasseltine Judson, born 1789, was one of the first female American foreign missionaries and the one for whom Judson College is named. She married Adoniram Judson two weeks before they embarked upon a mission trip to India - a trip that eventually led them to Burma, a place the gospel had not yet reached.
The Judsons learned Burmese and translated the scriptures. They would eventually prepare a Burmese grammar and translate the gospel of Matthew. Ann Judson wrote a history of the Burmese mission that was widely read in America and encouraged many to become missionaries. She died of illness in 1826, but her husband continued their mission. By the time of his death in 1850, Burma had sixty-three churches with 163 missionaries and native church leaders. Now, almost 183 years later, the name Judson remains well-known among Christians local to Burma.
"Being a Christian is one of my greatest achievements," Says Lasi with a proud smile. "That and I could come to Judson. Those are my greatest achievements."
The Judsons were Lasi's first connection to the college she would eventually attend, but longtime friend Ruth Ra was her second...
The Decision and the Wait
Ruth Ra (now Ruth Vreeland) graduated from Judson College in 2004. She had the honor of being the first Burmese student to attend the College as a direct result of Ann Hasseltine Judson. Ra and Lasi grew up in the same town and attended the same church in Myitkyina.
When Ra first began encouraging Lasi through email to attend Judson, Lasi had already applied to attend colleges in Thailand and Singapore, thinking her low-middle class family could not afford a college in the U.S. In Myanmar, having 1000(kyats) is the equivalent of having $1 in the U.S. For example, Lasi recalls her mother's monthly salary as a headmistress of a high school in 2001 was $50.
"The first thing that got me interested in Judson, was that it was a Christian school," said Lasi. "The second was Ruth - she told me I could get a scholarship.
When I finally decided I wanted to come to Judson, most of my family was not that supportive. My brothers tried to discourage me but my mother was the one who encouraged me."
Lasi then begin the process of coming to Judson that would eventually stretch into five years. Lasi, then 20, first had to spend two years studying the English language, at the end of which she had to pass the TOEFL - a test that evaluates an individual's use and comprehension of English. In 2004, three years after Lasi began her quest to come to Judson, she received her acceptance letter but was told she had to wait another year for the scholarship she needed. But, after she received her scholarship, she then had to wait yet another year to get a visa. Finally, in the fall of 2006, Lasi's dream became a reality as she stepped onto the Judson campus for the very first time...
Mother Judson and Daw Ah Bu
Ja Rawng Lasi sits with her feet tucked beneath her on a chair in Judson's WMU Dormitory lobby where she talks freely of how she came to be at Judson. Her Burmese accent is heavy though her English is extraordinarily good. She has glossy black hair and expressive eyes. There always seems to be a welcoming smile on her face, giving her the appearance of being much younger than her now 28 years. She studies Psychology and Business Administration, and will graduate in December 2009.
Lasi's Presidential Scholarship has not covered all of the costs of her living expenses and books but she has had a few contributing guardian angels looking out for her along the way. During her second year at Judson, Lasi's tuition was paid for by an anonymous donor, and her last year of school has been paid for by Emanuel Baptist Church WMU of Gordo and First Baptist Church of Huntsville. She will express her gratitude to First Baptist in November with a visit to their church.
Lasi has not been able to return to Myitkyina since 2007, a trip that was marked with the death of her mother, Daw Ah Bu Lasi - a woman whom Lasi calls "the strongest she has ever known." She was very close to her mother, who died of a stroke. Lasi's tragic journey back to Burma took four excruciating days.
"She died before I got there," says Lasi, with tears in her eyes. "I just told my family to wait for me to get there before they cremated her. I was a nervous wreck on the flight home but God kept me strong.
"She always encouraged me to come to Judson but I felt for awhile that I had abandoned her. I know it was God's will though; I think he sent me to Judson to learn how to handle life without her."
Smiling, Lasi remarks that she could officially be considered an "orphan" now. She says she is most aware of her solitude when in crowded places, such as airports. The loneliness presses upon her then but, at Judson, she never feels lonely - it has become "a home" to her. "Being alone has helped me to think about responsibility and I know that this is a privilege. It is my responsibility to share my education with my people."
And Lasi plans to do just that after graduation from Judson. She hopes to secure a three month internship through a Non-governmental Organization (NGO) that will allow her to return to her home country to work in the community. She would, one day, like to obtain her Master of Social Work degree, hopefully from Baylor University in Texas.
"I want to eventually find a job that will allow me to work both in my country and in the U.S.," Lasi said. "What I have done and what I will do is not just for me but for all people."
Lasi gave special thanks to all who have made her education at Judson College possible, including: President Dr. David Potts, former Judson music professor Dr. Elizabeth Hostetter, Ruth Ra Vreeland and WMU Resident Director Susie Allison.