BOZEMAN – When Phyu Pannu Khin was a Montana State University freshman and missing her family in Burma, she would think of her father enduring five years as a political prisoner.
If U Tint Lwin could survive without his wife and two daughters … if he could share a cell with four others … if he could live on cold rice, fish paste and a spoonful of beans and finally return home looking and acting the same as before his imprisonment, then she could overcome her homesickness, Khin told herself.
Now 22 years old and at home in Bozeman, Khin is a much-honored and admired senior in the Honors College and about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in cell biology and neuroscience (biomedical science option) in the College of Letters and Science. With her parents, sister and host parents watching, she will graduate Saturday, May 9, during the second commencement ceremony of the day at MSU’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. The first ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. Khin’s will begin at 1:30 p.m.
“We feel like any parents seeing their daughter graduate: super proud, super happy for her, super sad that she'll be heading elsewhere to continue her journey,” said Khin’s host father, Steve Durbin, of Bozeman. “World, watch out. Here comes Pannu.”
A few hours before meeting her Burmese family at the airport, Khin said she originally came to MSU through a U.S. Embassy scholarship, which placed her at MSU because of her interest in neuroscience. The opportunity lasted six months, but she had seen enough. She decided to enroll at MSU.
Her host parents, Durbin and Kate Gardner, helped make a U.S. education possible by allowing her to continue living with them and encouraging her to apply for scholarships, Khin said.
“There are plenty of reasons we invited Pannu to stay with us,” Durbin said. “She was introduced by a friend; we are interested in other cultures, we had lived abroad ourselves; we believe in supporting global friendships. But the real reason is simple: We fell in love with her kindness, sincerity, intelligence, and sense of humor. And everything else about her.”
Khin – pleased that she could conduct research as an undergraduate student and surprised that American students can interrupt and ask questions – said she felt she made the right decision by attending MSU.
“Now that I know I’m going to graduate, it’s scary -- scary and exciting, of course,” Khin said.
The right to question is a sensitive topic because her bank manager father was imprisoned after writing a letter criticizing the government for its handling of finances and economic affairs, Khin said. Five years old at the time, she didn’t see him for five years until he was released.
Officially, though, she didn’t even know he had been arrested.
Her mother and 14-year-old sister told her he was away on business, Khin said. When the two of them visited him on the weekends, they told Khin they were visiting a monastery. When she saw them carrying hair oil, Khin asked, “Who goes to a monastery with hair oil?” When she saw them cooking her father’s favorite foods, they said it was for the monastery. When Khin read about her father’s imprisonment in her sister’s diary, her mother said it was all fiction. The sister was trying to be a writer like her father.
Looking back, Khin said she isn’t bothered by the deception. They were doing it for her, after all. Far away from their relatives in the same village where British writer George Orwell once lived, they were also coping with the stress of living in a city of 4.5 million people.
“It was so sweet,” Khin said. “They were doing it to protect me from heartbreak.”
Now – after another long separation and a 30-hour flight from Burma – the family is together to celebrate success.
“I’m very excited and overjoyed to see my daughter again after missing her for a long time,” Lwin said. “… To watch her graduation, I feel one of my dreams comes true, not only for my daughter but also for new generations to get the chance to study abroad if they are smart enough.”
Besides graduating with honors, Khin was MSU’s International Student of the Year in 2014. She researched early development of the nervous system in Christa Merzdorf’s laboratory and presented her findings at a regional conference in Honolulu. She was a summer intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and a Summer Research Fellow at the Case Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a National Society of Collegiate Scholar, Montana Academy of Sciences Scholar, Montana INBRE Research Scholar, The Claremont Foundation Scholar, Prospect Burma U.K. Scholar, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute Scholar.
“She is among the most inspirational students I have ever met,” said Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the Honors College at MSU. “We have been privileged to have been a part of her young life. Pannu has taught us --her fellow students and faculty mentors at MSU -- to work hard, persist and take advantage of the opportunities presented to us.”
Khin said her family, whom she hadn’t seen in two years, will be in the United States for a month. After graduation, they will travel to Yellowstone National Park and then to the East Coast, where Khin will begin a Partners in Health (PIH) summer internship in Boston.
“This year, we had almost 400 incredible candidates apply for under 30 spots for the 2015 PIH summer internship,” senior strategist Jon Shaffer wrote in his acceptance letter to Khin. “It was the most diverse and impressive cohort of internship applications that we have ever had.
“We were immensely impressed with your passion and dedication to the movement for the right to health and feel confident that you will bring great skills, experience and diversity to this summer’s incoming class,” Shaffer continued.
After her internship is finished, Khin said she may look into forming a startup organization devoted to health care. She also wants to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience and global health. She will then return to Burma where she wants to teach at a medical school and help reform the country’s health care.
“I have that faith in my heart, which I deeply believe, that my dreams will come true someday,” Khin said.
Her mother is a cash manager at a Burmese bank, and her father is now focusing on his writing. He continues to express his views in essays and articles, but Khin noted that Burma is freer than it was 17 years ago.
Lwin said, “Although I've spent five years in prison, I still want to express my opinions in my writings because I strongly believe we can get the democratic rights in our society by practicing democratic ways including freedom of expressions."
Proud of his daughter, he said, “When I see her strength to come to the U.S., overcome obstacles and reach her goal successfully, I have to admit to seeing myself -- having struggled most of my life for democratic changes with a burning desire to give changing-fruits to new generations.”
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org