Halfway round the world: An interview with Thandar Aung, recipient of the IELTS Award
(Photo and interview by Lydia Ciesluk)
Thandar Aung (23) is from Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, and has just taken up a place on a Master’s course in International Health at Berlin’s Charité. Having received the 2014 British Council IELTS Award in East Asia, she had the choice of enrolling for a postgraduate programme at any university outside her home country. We met Thandar in a café in the bustling centre of Berlin to talk about her first days in Germany and her plans of going on to study at a British university.
BC: Since this is your first time abroad have you had any cultural encounters that struck you as unusual?
On my way to Germany, I took the first ever flight of my life. I had a stop-over at the airport in Doha and struggled a lot because never before did I have to carry so much heavy luggage by myself. In Myanmar, brothers or fathers or any other male person would always help a woman with heavy things. I therefore dropped my bags in front of the security guy and waited for him to pick it up. I expectantly looked at him - both of us were really confused. When he made no effort to help me, I realised that this was my first encounter with the Western “each-to-his-own” culture. Also, going to the supermarket is quite a challenge! In Myanmar, we have shop assistants helping us. Here you have to be quick collecting the purchased items from the counter and finding the right coins to pay. I really have to get used to this since we only have bank notes at home.
BC: Out of all universities in the world you chose one in Germany for your postgraduate studies – what was the motivation behind your decision?
The GBP 25,000 award covers all the tuition fees but not living expenses. I therefore decided to base my studies in Berlin – a vibrant capital city that is affordable and has good universities. However, my plan is to get around in Europe and to take some of the advanced modules in Edinburgh or London as well.
BC: Why are you thinking about further studies in Britain?
I really want to study in a country where English is the native language to further improve my language skills, besides university courses in the UK are renowned for their high quality. I also believe that the UK’s long-standing experience in providing international programmes will be beneficial for my academic development. The educational sector in Germany is still on its way to reach this level of internationalised higher education.
BC: How do you believe the UK to be different from Germany?
I imagine the UK to be more densely populated than Berlin. The German capital is very spread out in terms of space. Only in the central district, “Mitte”, there are always many people. I think that perhaps there are more Indian and Asian restaurants in London or Edinburgh. So far, the food is what I miss most about home. I feel that Asian restaurants in Berlin are too adapted to the Berliners’ taste.
BC: Have you got a bucket list of things you would absolutely love to do while living in Germany?
Indeed! I’m really keen on visiting a concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker since I've never heard an orchestra live before. Furthermore, I want to drive around in a car in Berlin or at least have somebody driving me around as I don't have a driving license here. I used to drive a lot in Yangon and I want to experience Berlin from a different means of transportation rather than the everyday trains and buses. (By the way, I never rode a train before in Myanmar.). With winter just around the corner, I am very much looking forward to go to Christmas markets in other cities like Cologne or Dortmund. Hopefully, the first weeks of studying here will help me finding some company for these trips.
BC: You were awarded the first 2014 British Council IELTS Award in East Asia. Can you tell us more about this scholarship?
The IELTS Award can be used to finance full-time programmes at any university outside the applicant’s home country that accepts IELTS as part of its admission requirements. Candidates must have reached a minimum score of 6.0 in all four IELTS modules and need to provide a letter of admission from the preferred host university.
BC: How did you find out about this funding opportunity?
My life has evolved with the British Council and therefore I’m always aware of the organisation’s projects. I started my first English classes as a young learner and grew up reading hundreds of books in the British Council library. They offered us a type of education that opened our minds. In February 2014, I took the IELTS exam and did well thanks to the incredible amount of free resources for preparation and practice offered by the British Council. I hope the IELTS Award will continue to inspire many generations to come.
BC: Your vision for transformation of the health sector in Myanmar has helped you to win the award. Can you tell us more about your future plans?
My aim is to work in the ministry of health or in a regional WHO office in Myanmar where I want to contribute to the health sector reform process in Myanmar. This has always been a dream I had and I believe that my studies in Europe will allow me to make it come true.