Student tackles poverty-related issues in Myanmar co-op

For his co-op last semester, John Erland, AMD’16, challenged himself to step out of his comfort zone.

That goal led him to Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest countries and which ended its military dictatorship in 2011, effectively opening the country to the outside world. Erland worked on co-op from last July to December 2014 at Partnership for Change, a Norway-based nongovernmental organization that aims to bring businesses, the public sector, and nonprofits together to address the world’s most pressing issues and create a more sustainable global society.

“I figured Myanmar was possibly the most challenging place I could work on poverty-related issues,” said Erland, a fourth-year communication studies major in the College of Arts, Media and Design. “I wanted to learn from people who have endured great adversity.”

Erland’s co-op was supported by a Presidential Global Scholars award and a Provost’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors award. Co-op, the cornerstone of Northeastern’s experiential learning model, integrates rigorous classroom study with real world experiences.

Erland spent the first part of his co-op in Shan State, where he worked with Teachers Across Boarders. He focused on teaching English to tour guides and hotel staff, who need to know the language in order to communicate with tourists. The former military dictatorship all but banned English from the country as part of its suppression methods, Erland explained.

He spent the other part of his co-op in the city of Yangon, teaching former political prisoners English as well as computer skills. Many of his pupils, he said, had been imprisoned when they were college-aged and had never had the opportunity to learn.

“For most of them it was the first time they had used a computer or gone on the Internet,” Erland said. “The opportunity to learn English was them taking back their education in many ways.”

In addition to teaching, Erland worked alongside international guests of Partnership for Change, including professors and lawyers. He conducted needs assessments of the former political prisoners’ communities, research that could be used to help inform best practices for transitioning these former prisoners back into the community.

He also served as the Partnership for Change office manager in Yangon, working on projects such as Myanmar’s first-ever women’s entrepreneurship day and distributing solar LED lamps to local citizens.

As part of his Provost award, Erland is currently investigating how communities, fishermen, and business owners who rely upon Inle Lake in Shan State communicate with NGOs about environmental issues impacting the lake.

He said participating in a Dialogue of Civilizations program in Indonesia a year and a half ago and working with people from a completely different culture helped prepare him for his co-op in Myanmar. While on Dialogue, he interacted closely with local students and community members to find solutions to social issues.

These experiences have inspired his passion to work on poverty-related issues in the United States and to serve as a contact for other Northeastern students who want to co-op in Myanmar in the future.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done there,” Erland said.