They came to Bowling Green three years ago with little formal education and virtually no English language skills, but on Saturday they happily walked the aisle with their classmates at Western Kentucky University’s E.A. Diddle Arena to accept their diplomas as graduates of Greenwood High School.
Ba Gay, Piang Lian and Kyaw So are Burmese refugees whose families were relocated to Bowling Green after political unrest forced them to flee their native Myanmar for refugee camps in neighboring Thailand and Malaysia.
The students, all 20 years old, confronted many challenges in their new environment, where they had to learn to adapt to the American educational system and a new language.
“We couldn’t live in Burma, we needed a better life and education,” Lian said.
There were next to no opportunities for formal schooling in the refugee camps, and the three refugees enrolled at Greenwood at an age when most students are close to graduating.
The state does not fund refugees or legal immigrants who are 21 or older and attempting to complete their high school requirements.
State Rep. Jody Richards, a Bowling Green Democrat, sponsored a bill that passed the House earlier this year that would change the practice. But Richards’ bill died in the Senate.
Shelly Towe, who teaches English as a Second Language at Greenwood, said Gay, Lian and So were put on an accelerated path to help them graduate before aging out.
In addition to the ESL and other classes the three refugees have taken, Gay, Lian and So took additional classes through the Novel Stars program, which enables students to complete classes online.
During the school year, Gay and Lian were able to earn three credits through Novel Stars in one class period, and So earned two credits in one period.
“The diploma has been very important to them, and they are all hard workers,” Towe said.
After growing up among an assortment of Burmese dialects, the students speak English well, if haltingly.
They have also mastered the English alphabet, another adjustment from the written Burmese language, which has 55 characters and is referred to as ka-lounh.
“We know English, but we’re shy,” Lian said.
The new graduates play soccer in local leagues and were part of an intramural volleyball team at Greenwood that finished second in a schoolwide tournament.
“I think Greenwood has been a very accepting community to all of them,” Towe said.
So plays guitar and sings, and Lian is proficient enough in English to act as an interpreter for the family of another Burmese student who is functionally mentally disabled.
“He is applying for an interpreter position with the school district,” Towe said.
Gay and So also hope to find jobs after they graduate, and So said he wants to be able to help his two younger brothers and younger sister through work.
They are members of a graduating class of 235 students that was awarded $4.4 million in scholarship money and features 82 honor graduates, nine Governor’s Scholars and four National Merit commended students.