INDIANAPOLIS — Peng Thang can’t remember anything about his family’s flight to safety after fleeing his village of Zephai to the capital of Myanmar, formerly Burma.
It was mostly blurry, he said. However, he recalls a grueling journey on foot from Myanmar before eventually seeking refuge in Malaysia. A year later, in 2007, the family went to the United States.
As a refugee, his English skills were new and school was a challenge for the then 12-year-old.
“My friends did their jobs,” Thang said, “but I only drew because I didn’t understand English.”
In high school, Thang found a program offered by the Burmese American Community Institute to help him with his homework and questions about his future. What his parents would do if they could, he said.
“We didn’t know about the college visit, the college application, the essay and things like that, it was one of the few organizations that was there to help,” Thang said.
The first in his family to go to college, Thang attended Indiana University. Shortly after leaving, he returned to programming at BACI.
The mentee is now the mentor, and he is not the only one. More than half of BACI’s current mentors are former mentees of the program.
Thang now sits with students in a classroom at Southport High School on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, where he and his mentees review homework, discuss goals and learn college-ready skills.
The program also hosts after-school sessions at Perry Meridian High School on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
“It’s just a really good community to work with because we’re all so closely connected,” Thang said.
Like Thang, Burmese Hoosiers who have spent half or more of their lives in the United States face a number of hurdles in adjusting, said Elaisa Vahnie, the institute’s executive director.
For the past decade they have tried to fill the gaps in services, particularly for Burmese refugees. Although the program focuses on this community, it is open to students of all backgrounds.
The institute’s year-round Upward College program, launched concurrently with BACI, is part of these services.
According to BACI surveys, more than three times as many Burmese live in the city limits as there were ten years ago.
The resettlement of Burmese refugees in Perry Township, where BACI is based, has contributed to significant growth in the region’s Asian community.
Five-year 2019 data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates that the community, which includes Southport and parts of Beech Grove, is home to approximately 14,000 Asian residents.
With this growth, BACI was looking for a way to connect with young people who would be among the first in their families to enter higher education and some K-12 schools.
Lian Sang, BACI’s program director, says the college program does more than guide students to their next step. It brings them together, boosts morale and creates friendships, he said.
BACI estimates that the program has enrolled more than 450 high school graduates in colleges and universities since its inception. They celebrated about 95% of their students graduating in college in 2021.
Around 200 students are enrolled in the program. On average, around 50 to 70 students attend the daily events.
December Tling, a program mentee, considers her options: college, becoming a flight attendant, or enlisting in the armed forces. If she decides to go to college, she would be the first in her family to do so.
Tling, 17, serves as President, connecting with her peers and sharing her ideas with BACI executives.
As COVID-19 transformed her high school experience, Tling said her biggest challenge is dealing with all the moving parts of her life, like her family, who have been on the run since the military coup in their native Myanmar.
“I try to keep myself as busy as possible,” Tling said.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, about 50 students gathered in a Southport High School activity room to conduct mock interviews. After the questions were asked, the room erupted in giggles. In a corner they recorded TikToks. In another, they played games.
Sang said the students are making up for lost time: “They haven’t seen each other for a whole year.”
COVID-19 raised concerns for mentors and mentees in the program, much like after-school programs across the country.
Students skipped assignments or didn’t turn them in at all. Many of the students in the program study English at Perry Township Schools. Virtual learning isn’t easy, Sang said, and the majority of her students fell behind at some point.
Mentors have noticed improvements this semester, and nearly all students are bouncing back, Thang said.
“They weren’t necessarily like school because they were studying online, so we had to put in a lot of effort,” Thang said.
In this community, the shared knowledge and experiences of mentors make mentees feel more comfortable in uncharted territory, Tling said.
“You really aren’t alone,” Tling said. “You’re not the only person going through this.”