From Burgettstown to Burma: One local woman’s journey
Elizabeth Yesko stands in front of Shwe Dagon Pagon temple in Myanmar.
Teaching is known as a way to help others explore new worlds. But for one local woman, becoming a teacher has taken her to the other side of the globe.
Burgettstown native Elizabeth Yesko, 51, is teaching English in the city of Mandalay in Myanmar.
Yesko first traveled to Myanmar in 2010 to act as a guest teacher at a branch campus of Jembas Universitas, which is based in Java in Indonesia. She returned this past summer to accept a permanent position teaching in Mandalay. In addition to teaching children aged 10 through 12, she teaches adults and educators who hope to become proficient in English.
“I love working with children because they are quick learners,” Yesko said. “But some of my closest colleagues are the older, wiser ones … wise with age and very kind.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a Southeast Asian country that borders Thailand, India and Laos. Recently, it has been in the news after emerging from years of civil war and social repression. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to the nation, meeting their president and visiting the home of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
But underneath the recent headlines lies centuries of rich culture.
“There is no other place on the Earth like Myanmar,” Yesko said. “Historically speaking, the people have respected and preserved their cultural traditions. I can only hope that they continue to do so.”
Long before being asked to teach there, Yesko said she had been fascinated with the region.
“I’ve always been interested in Eastern philosophy,” Yesko said, “how the people live and why they chose to live that way.
“I think Buddhists understand how the human mind and human psychology work. People understand if they do something there will be consequences to those actions.”
Myanmar’s culture is in some ways a reflection of its countryside. Yesko said the lush Burmese landcape has given her a new set of hobbies.
“The first thing I do in the morning is to take a brisk walk before sunrise,” Yesko said. “It’s such a beautiful place.
“I like to go walking and hiking, and I love to get lost in nature among the trees,” Yesko said. “I’ve been learning how to meditate. It’s really helpful as an educator - in order to help my students to be better learners, it helped for me to learn how to be calm and peaceful.”
But not even an area lush with tropic beauty can stop one’s natural yearning for home.
“I am really homesick for the rolling, green hills of Washington County,” Yesko said.
Yesko’s journey to Myanmar has been years in the making. She first had exposure to East Asian culture while working for an inclusion program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She helped students and immigrants learn English while helping them become accustomed to American culture.
She said it took years of teaching in the United States before she was ready to try her skills internationally.
“It’s interesting that a lot of young Americans think they can go abroad and teach English without any experience,” Yesko said. “People who want to learn need someone who knows how to teach. It’s not something you just do.”
As an educator who has had the experience of teaching in two cultures, Yesko said she has a special appreciation for the way her current students conduct themselves.
“One difference that really makes teaching such a joy is that the students show respect to their teachers, especially the older ones,” Yesko said. “It is pervasive throughout their culture. Next to their parents, all the people hold their teachers in highest esteem. They all really respect their elders.”
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