Celia Paung dreams of being a geriatric nurse, caring for older people in a way that will honor the ethnic Karen grandparents who raised her in their rural Burmese village.
“I always felt like they watched me when I was young, and then one day, when I get older, when I grow up, I was going to watch them back and take care of them,” she said. “But then I left, and I don’t have that opportunity anymore.”
Paung, 25, graduated Dec. 18 with a bachelor’s degree from UNC’s School of Nursing and already is studying for her licensing exam. It has not been an easy road, she said, but it was worth every step.
“You have to work hard if you want to earn it,” she said. “Otherwise, you don’t get it. Everything is not easy.”
The civil war between resistance groups and the military-controlled Burma (Myanmar) government has displaced and killed millions since the 1940s. Hundreds of thousands still live as refugees in Thai border camps and other countries.
Paung’s father fought with the Karen National Union resistance army, forcing him and later his wife to remain in hiding. Paung and her sister Ainhee, now 19, were raised by their maternal grandparents in a small, rural Burmese village.
They played with what they could find and ran barefoot with friends, Paung said. School offered only the basics to students who could afford it, she said. They sat on the floor, copying down lessons the teacher wrote on a blackboard.
“The tests there were if you could read line by line, memorize all of them, you would do good,” she said. “Here, it’s not like that. You have to understand; you have to think. It’s a lot of critical thinking here, especially with nursing.”
In the fields
Paung worked in the fields after school, growing sesame seeds and peanuts for oil to sell and rice and sweet potatoes to eat. There was no running water, no electricity and no medical care. Her grandfather, a village elder, was popular for his traditional remedies.
They were happy but lived in fear of Burma’s army, she said.
“Each time the soldiers burned our village, everyone in the village ran into the jungle. One time when we came back after an attack was over, I remember seeing body parts of my neighbors all over our little road. It was terrible,” she wrote in her UNC admissions essay.
Paung and her sister briefly lived with an aunt in the city before moving with their parents to the Noe Po Refugee Camp. Paung was 14 when they first met her parents. There isn’t much to say about it, she said, looking away with eyes full of tears.
They left for the United States three months later, settling in New Bern, North Carolina, in 2005. Adjusting was difficult, Paung said. There were no English as a Second Language teachers in New Bern, and she couldn’t keep up in class. Other students bullied her. Everything in America was different.
The family moved to Chapel Hill, and Paung enrolled in East Chapel Hill High School, where her ESL and other teachers worked with her. She became a volunteer daycare worker at United Church of Chapel Hill, learning more about American language and culture. Her parents got third-shift jobs as UNC housekeepers.
But life soon took another turn. Her mother returned to Burma, and Paung got two part-time jobs, including at the Cedars of Chapel Hill, where she still works as a home health nursing assistant. She became a parent to her younger sister, cooking, cleaning and running errands. She graduated high school in 2010 and enrolled at Durham Tech.
A difficult choice
Paung excelled at practical nursing skills, but her papers and exams suffered from her limited English. She worked with Bateman and tutors to understand the material.
In 2012, her father also left for Burma, giving her a choice between going home to the fields and possible persecution, or staying, raising her sister and working long hours to get an education.
Paung stayed in class, working long days and with her tutors. Flicka Bateman, by then Paung’s “surrogate mother,” helped her find an affordable apartment. Her professors at Durham Tech kept raising the bar, encouraging her to aim higher.
It was during that time that life dealt Paung yet a new blow – her sister left with her boyfriend without saying where she was going or for how long. It was devastating, because they had been through everything together, Paung said.
But with Bateman by her side, she pushed forward, applying to four-year universities. UNC responded with an acceptance letter.
Classes at UNC were scary at first, Paung said, especially when her grades fell and she thought it was over. But UNC modified her schedule and she cut her work hours, meeting regularly with professors and tutors, and working with her nurse mentors.
“Not only, for her, was she learning the material, but she was learning the structure of complex language, so we would just go and practice, practice, practice,” said Bateman, director of Carrboro’s Refugee Support Center.
She also was challenging Karen cultural norms, Paung said, from learning to ask questions – viewed as disobedience in Burma – to delaying marriage and children for school.
“Even my friends did not understand why I struggled,” she said. “They’d say, why are you going to school, you’re already 25. You’re supposed to be working and having a family.”
Paung is now a U.S. citizen and a Karen community leader, tutor, interpreter and driver. She serves on the Refugee Support Center board, with Chapel Hill’s Compass Center, and with Orange County’s Early Head Start and Family Success Alliance programs for students and families.
Many joined her Dec. 17 for a pre-graduation celebration, and Paung’s sister, who now has her own family, came from Minnesota to watch her cross the stage.
Paung wants to visit Burma and her grandmother, whom she hasn’t seen in a decade, after getting her nursing license. Her grandfather died a couple of years ago.
Her plan is to be a UNC Hospitals nurse, Paung said, and to keep learning “everything,” from health care to cooking and writing. She never imagined finishing high school or going to college, she said.
“I never thought I would reach (a nursing degree), but I’ve got it now. It’s amazing.”