Act Six Scholar and First-Generation College Student’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Bethel

Pawlay Htoo ’26 is a pre-nursing major, Act Six scholar, and first-generation college student with big dreams. She is also part of the K’nyaw tribe, a persecuted ethnic minority from Myanmar who came to the United States as refugees. Htoo shares her story of growing up in the U.S. as a refugee and her journey to Bethel in hopes that she can inspire the next generation of K'nyaw students to honor their heritage, continue telling their stories, and become who they’re meant to be.

By Marcus Dip Silas S’25 and Katie Johnson ‘19

May 12, 2023 | 10 a.m.

Pawlay Htoo '26, pre-nursing major

Pawlay Htoo '26, pre-nursing major

Pawlay Htoo’s story begins in Myanmar. Born in the Tham Hin refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border, Htoo’s family had escaped ongoing civil war in their state. The armed conflict, which stretches back to the 1940shas displaced many K’nyaw people—who are also known as Karen—over the decades. Htoo remembers the greenery of the jungle surrounding the camp and playing in the dirt, but not much else from the short time she spent in the refugee camp.

Not long after arriving at the camp, Htoo and her family were given an opportunity to resettle and build new lives in America. Since her grandmother was already living in the Twin Cities, Htoo’s family decided that Minnesota would be the best place for them to start over. There were also a number of Karen families who had resettled in Minnesota from the camp in Tham Hin, so Htoo’s family had help from the community in their transition to America. “My parents talked about how when they first arrived, they experienced jet lag and homesickness. It was a hard experience for them. Back in Myanmar, their highest education level was elementary school. My siblings and I had more opportunities for education growing up in the U.S., and it is not something I have taken lightly,” Htoo says. “I’m a first-generation college student, and I believe I am paving the way for future K’nyaw and Karen youth.”

Growing up in the Twin Cities as a refugee was a unique experience for Htoo. Her parents still barely speak any English, but their understanding of the language has grown significantly. Htoo remembers that her parents always required the help of interpreters for visits to the doctor and parent-teacher conferences. She is grateful for a supportive community of Karen people in the cities who have kept social isolation for Htoo’s family at bay. “Our community made it easy for us to reach out and ask for help. This is very much part of our culture as a people, and it is a culture that I am still learning about since I am still young,” she says.

Htoo believes that it is important for young immigrants to remember the stories of their people and where they came from. “It starts with us, and it is our duty to preserve our culture and heritage so that our cultures don’t disappear,” Htoo says. This is the liminal space that she finds herself in: the in-between space of learning her own culture and working hard to preserve her cultural traditions and a wealth of generational wisdom so that others like her can learn more about who they are and the cultures God placed them in.

Since she was in the sixth grade, Htoo knew that she wanted to study at Bethel. “I had heard about Act Six, and it was a dream of mine to receive a full-ride scholarship,” Htoo says. She looked at colleges that offered Act Six—a full-tuition, full-need scholarship program for emerging urban leadersand knew that she wanted to help expand the K’nyaw community at Bethel. “This journey has been amazing,” she says. It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to further my education and pursue a future career that I am passionate about. Education is vitally important, in that we can do so much with it.”

In high school, Htoo was an avid learner and signed up to be an EMT student. She was able to do ride-alongs with the fire department and learned many things firsthand. She remembers responding to a call that involved a K’nyaw family, and she was able to be an interlocutor between the first responders and the family. Though she was initially afraid that her specific Karen dialect would not be understood by the family, Htoo turned out to be a much-needed advocate for them. “Many in our community are afraid of first responders, so I know that my presence there built a little more trust between the family and the medics,” Htoo says. After the visit, one of the medics thanked her for being there. “It was such a rewarding experience and affirmed my ambition to pursue a career in healthcare,” she says.

Htoo is a pre-nursing major with a minor in psychology. She is fascinated by how physical health and mental health are interconnected. “I really want to study how different cultures view mental health, and I am starting with my own culture first, she says. There is also a need for nurses in refugee campsand Htoo believes that representation of ethnic minorities in the field as healthcare professionals can inspire and empower younger refugees to be hopeful about their futures.

“It is certainly a desire of mine to go back to my homeland one day and serve."

— Pawlay Htoo '26

For now, she’s focused on completing her education and preparing herself the best she can to lead a life of helping others.

Htoo is blazing a trail for other K’nyaw youth by sharing her experience of applying for college as a first-generation immigrant. “I had to reach out and ask for help from a lot of people, because my parents had no idea on how to help me in the process of applying for college,” she says. Htoo spends much of her free time with The Urban Village, a nonprofit organization that reaches out to Karenni youths in urban areas to help keep cultural heritage vibrant. The organization also offers substance-abuse and after-school programs. “Back when I was growing up, culturally appropriate after-school programs were few. We often received instruction from people who did not look like us and did not speak our language. The Urban Village is doing something truly transformational in our communities,” Htoo says.

Htoo is grateful for the partnership between The Urban Village and Bethel through the “Fight for Something” scholarship. “This is an invaluable opportunity for K’nyaw/Karenni to pursue a degree at Bethel and add to the growing K’nyaw student community here,” she says. “Bethel is still a primarily white institution, and our presence here benefits the cultural diversity of the university. We all learn from each other, and we all have different stories to share.”

Since coming to Bethel, Htoo has experienced significant spiritual development. She grew up in a home that maintained two religions—Christianity and Buddhism—which resulted in much division and conflict. She has been greatly encouraged by Vespers, Chapel, and student-led Bible studies, and every Wednesday, Htoo meets with other students in her dorm to read the Bible and pray together.

“There are so many opportunities to grow spiritually and find belonging at Bethel.”

— Pawlay Htoo '26

Htoo continues to share her story and is hopeful that many others like her will be empowered to share their stories with others. She believes that stories of trauma and struggles have the power to offer healing when shared with others, and in this way those stories are honored and never forgotten.

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