by Patricia O’Dell
Ka Baw Say immigrated to the United States with his older brother and sister when he was 19 years old. The Thomas and Theresa Sullivan Scholarship he received in 2018 enabled him to improve his education and his life.
“We wanted a good future,” says Say of him and his siblings. “Our parents did not come with us. They were worried, but they didn’t want to stop us. They wanted us to have a good life.”
Say is a member of the Karen immigrant community. Because of political unrest and civil war in his home country of Myanmar, he and his family were constantly moving. At age 7, Say entered a Karen refugee camp in Thailand. He says the next ten years were a struggle.
“Living in the refugee camp was like animals living in their stables,” Say says. “We did not have an identity. Lives do not really mean anything there.”
He felt different when he came to the United States and Kansas City. Within the first few weeks of being in the U.S., Say learned he had many opportunities and could pursue a career if he was willing to work hard.
“It was a moment when I felt so empowered and so great about myself,” Say says. “All these images came into my mind, my fears were minimized and the same feeling of wanting to become a teacher that I had when I was little came back.”
Say spent his first three years in Kansas City getting oriented, working and teaching himself English. He did not go to classes or use a tutor, but instead relied on the Internet. He learned quickly and earned his high school equivalency certificate.
When he felt he was ready he began to look for the best fit for college, he chose UMKC in part because of the diversity.
“I’m not afraid to express myself here. I needed to be in a place where I could be what I want to be,” he says.
A student in the School of Education, he secured teaching certificates in five subject areas and during his student teaching, discovered a lot about his strengths and weaknesses. He feels that experience will help him do a good job as an educator.
Receiving the Thomas and Teresa Sullivan Scholarship last year meant more than just financial support.
“In my family, I am the first generation to attend college,” Say says. “I feel so courageous. Receiving a scholarship is not just getting help to pay off some of my class expenses, but a lot more. It makes me realize that there is someone who does care about me, who does care about my future, who does care about my story and does care about my success. It is amazing to own this feeling and to be filled with what we call spiritual nutrition.”
Teresa Sullivan, Ph.D., who established the scholarship with her late husband in 2004, was also the first person in her family to go to college. A former teacher, she attended Queens College in New York City. She worked and went to school to pay her expenses, just as Say does. Sullivan encourages students to work hard and persevere.
“The need for college graduates is high,” Sullivan says. “Some people say they can’t afford to go to college. I say you can’t afford to not go to college. There are many scholarships available. Apply!”
While Say is still humble about his accomplishments, he recognizes that he has learned so much on his journey.
“Be determined,” he advises. “Life is not simple and easy. Put yourself out there, challenge yourself and get to know your environment.”
Beyond the work, he has gained insight into what will drive his life’s success. He would like to share his story — perhaps by writing a book — so other people know that they can accomplish the same things.
“When you can be who you are, that’s when you’re perfect. Be a simple human. Simple, but perfect.”