More than 600 students from the area and some from as far as Indianapolis were in the crowd at Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday morning to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi stress the value of education and the importance of the pursuit of knowledge both inside and outside the classroom.
“I didn’t want to miss school, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said North Side High School freshman Pye Pye, who was part of the welcoming committee that helped plan for Suu Kyi’s arrival and speech.
“I’m more excited than if I had won the lottery,” said Bobbie Shull, a speech and debate teacher at Norwell High School
Shull, who lives in Fort Wayne, got up about 3 a.m. Tuesday to drive to Norwell, pick up about 20 students on the speech and debate team and arrive at the Coliseum at 6:30 a.m. to ensure they got seats.
For both East Allen County Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools, the number of students who could attend was left up to the discretion of individual schools. Most of the students in attendance were high school and middle school students.
Many were Burmese students in English-as-a-second-language classes, but some weren’t allowed to attend because of bad grades or poor attendance. Other non-Burmese students came as part of a class or simply because they wanted to.
“North Side (High School) has a very diverse student population,” social studies teacher Erin Baumgertner said. “I know (Suu Kyi) is a symbol of freedom (in Myanmar). It’s an opportunity not just for my Burmese students but for all my students because of what she stands for.”
The nine members of the freshman class at Smith Academy of Excellence, a charter school that opened this year, attended with Principal Thomas Smith. Smith said the event was a great opportunity for students and fit into class discussions about activism.
About 400 students from FWCS were able to attend the event.
“Ideally, we would have liked to bring many more,” district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
The district ran into some logistical and transportation problems, as elementary students started school at the same time the speech was scheduled to begin. But Harrison Hill Elementary’s fifth grade arrived at school early to get to the Coliseum in time for the speech.
Other schools with students in attendance were Northrop, North Side and South Side high schools and Shawnee and Northwood middle schools.
In her remarks, Suu Kyi emphasized the opportunity of Burmese people to receive an education in the United States. She said educational reform is needed in Burma, a country now known internationally as Myanmar, where only a small percentage of students are able to attend school.
Suu Kyi encouraged those in attendance to take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded to them in the U.S.
“The greatest gift you can give to us is education,” she said.
Ra Beyar, a senior at Heritage Junior-Senior High School, said she learned from Suu Kyi’s remarks to work hard in school, but not to forget the Burmese language and customs of her family. Beyar was born in Myanmar and arrived in the U.S. at the age of 13.
North Side sophomore April Soe was born in the U.S. but was taught how to read and understand Burmese, so she had no trouble understanding Suu Kyi, who spoke mostly in Burmese to the crowd.
Her speech brought encouragement and inspiration to Burmese students.
“She inspires me to be a better person,” said Oat Aw, a sophomore at North Side.
Pye Pye said her father has taught her about Suu Kyi and taken her to protests locally and in Washington, D.C., starting at a young age. She said her father tells her he wants his daughter to be like Suu Kyi.
Heritage sophomore Nyaing Layaung said she wants to further her education in medicine to return to help people in Myanmar, a move Suu Kyi encouraged in her speech.
“I want to go to help. I really, really do,” she said.