Watching students at a Myanmar university learn by rote and seeing a chemistry lab with no actual chemistry equipment was a stark reminder that the once-closed society is still emerging from a half century of military rule, said Chris McCord.
"That was to me a very evocative moment," said the South Elgin resident who is leading an effort by faculty members at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to work with universities in Myanmar (formerly Burma) exchanging information and expertise.
NIU specializes in Southeast Asian studies and operates the only Center for Burma Studies in the U.S., said McCord, dean of the university's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"We see great opportunities to build up both of these programs," McCord said. "We hope to be able to send our students and scholars to study there. We have already brought some of their scholars to the university to study here."
In the last 18 months, eight NIU faculty members, including McCord, have visited and lectured in Myanmar. NIU also is hosting four librarians from Myanmar universities this week who are learning to rebuild their own libraries back home, McCord said.
Myanmar until recently was considered a pariah state. The country was ruled with an iron fist by a military junta from 1962 to 2011. Military leaders were accused of suppressing dissent and gross human rights abuses that led to international condemnation and sanctions. The nation held its first general election in 20 years in 2010.
McCord said during military rule, Myanmar's university system was effectively shut down and many institutions were closed because they were viewed as centers of resistance.
"Myanmar higher education is just completely rebuilding itself after decades of oppression," he said. "The most important thing is to help them successfully rebuild themselves."
NIU has been building relationships with newer institutions, such as Yadanabon University near Mandalay, and the University of Yangon, one of the oldest universities in Myanmar.
Many universities are operating with minimal resources.
"The library at Yadanabon, most high schools in our area would be sort of embarrassed to have a library that small," McCord said. "Not only did they have no facilities, they had no textbooks, and no discretion. Their whole system, not only were they very limited in resources, but they were incredibly regimented and controlled in what they could or couldn't (teach). Everything was dictated from the top down."
As government controls have started to relax, higher education institutions are eager to move forward, but often don't know how to develop new curriculum, McCord said.
For instance, NIU's environmental studies director just returned from Yadanabon University, which wants to develop an environmental studies program, draft local environmental law and conduct water quality studies.
"They were so hungry, so passionate for somebody to engage with them, to help them help themselves," McCord said.
McCord said he hopes, with the help of federal funding and private foundations, to keep building relationships with Myanmar universities.
"We hope that they will continue to find us as one of their premier U.S. partners," he said.