Spring FGCU graduate Cho Thinzar Maung Maung doesn’t take for granted the opportunities that most consider a standard part of the college experience: learning from accomplished professors, collaborating with peers hungry for knowledge and participating in fulfilling extra-curricular activities.
If she had stayed in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country where she was born and raised, Maung Maung says she would have faced immense obstacles to pursue her dream of earning a dual degree in clinical laboratory science and entrepreneurship. That was even before the nation’s democratic government was overthrown in a military coup last February that sparked ramifications ranging from utilities disruptions to civilian leaders being imprisoned to protesters being killed.
“There are things I wouldn’t have known were possible if I had remained there,” says Maung Maung, an Honors College senator, 2021 Hall of Fame inductee and the Marieb College of Health & Human Services Undergraduate Student of the Year. “FGCU opened my eyes to a lot of opportunities I didn’t realize I could have. Being in this environment, being in this country, being at this school, allowed me to develop a mindset I needed to pursue all those things. FGCU changed my fate. For this, my lifelong mission is to practice and exemplify the values of The FGCU Effect.”
Maung Maung’s list of achievements would make any parent or mentor proud. She participated in FGCU’s Runway Program for aspiring entrepreneurs, completed several internships in the healthcare industry, conducted research, served as a University Ambassador and president of the FGCU Dance Company. She even selected to serve on a search advisory committee for the dean of Marieb College.
“I have never before seen a student so engaged both inside and outside the classroom,” raves Julie Zemplinski, program director of Clinical Laboratory Science and Diagnostic Molecular Science. “I would say that Cho accomplished the work that normally three students would accomplish together. Her drive is so strong, and so is her commitment. She accomplishes all her tasks at an exceptional level and completes them by the established deadlines. Her oral and written communication skills are beyond outstanding.”
Maung Maung, who’s now working full time at Physicians Regional Medical Center while studying for her certification exam, eventually plans to earn a graduate degree. Then she can pursue her next dream: combining her clinical skills with her entrepreneurial drive to launch her own lab, preferably in Southeast Asia. Myanmar shares borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. Growing up there, Maung Maung was inspired by the dedication of her mother, who’s a physician, and others working in healthcare. She always felt drawn to the medical field.
Between the global pandemic and the national political crisis in Myanmar, Maung Maung has not been able to return and visit her family in Myanmar in two years. Her parents and two little sisters are safe, she says, but the separation has been difficult to bear.
“It’s very upsetting to know this almost civil war is going on in your home country and being so far away from it,” she says. “But we’re trying to find peace with that and realize maybe it’s a good thing that at least one of us is outside that situation.”
FGCU’s first international student from Myanmar, Maung Maung has used the opportunity to enlighten those she meets about her country, its citizens’ long fight for democracy and the military coup d’état. She says life for the 54 million people there now includes constant terror of soldiers violently thwarting any form of resistance; torture, murder and sexual abuse of women; arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of students, journalists and celebrities; social, political and economic isolation from the rest of the world; information blackouts, curfews, poverty and other adverse conditions.
“I urge community members to first and foremost gain awareness and learn about the military junta that seized power and imprisoned the country’s civilian leaders,” Maung Maung says. “It is easy to pass by this information as another unfortunate event that occurs, naturally, in today’s day and age. However, the story completely changes when it is your blood family and friends who are among these victims. I desperately urge the international population with the privilege to step outside without the fear of losing one’s life — myself included — to become aware of this situation and take measures to help nurse the country back to democracy and justice.”
One way to do that, she adds, is by supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement, a nationwide campaign of Myanmar workers refusing to cooperate with the military regime.
Maung Maung left her homeland in 2017 with two suitcases and “nothing but curiosity and determination,” as she says in the video she made for her FGCU Hall of Fame application. She had learned about the university from a high school sports coach whose sister graduated from FGCU. Maung Maung toured Duke University and other schools, but “it was love at first” when she visited FGCU. The beautiful campus, combined with the clinical laboratory science degree she wanted and the availability of merit scholarships, “was like a dream.”
“If could do it all over again, I would not go anywhere else,” she says. “People at FGCU really do want to see students succeed. I’m very thankful for that. Each individual person helped me get to where I wanted to be. The growth and opportunities I’ve experienced have changed my mindset and aspirations for the future. I’m a product of what FGCU can accomplish.”
In true FGCU Effect fashion, Maung Maung was inspired in her early days on campus by seeing photos of the FGCU Hall of Fame displayed in the Cohen Student Union. It feels “very surreal,” she says, to be among them now, having completed her degree four years later. She’s grateful for financial support that helped make it happen, including the American Society of Clinical Pathology Laboratory Student Scholarship, Blue & Green Scholars Award, G. Jeffrey Provol Scholarship and R&D Stranahan Jr. Scholarship.
As an undergraduate, Maung Maung already has been inspiring others by devoting much of her time to the Center for Academic Achievement and Student Support Services. Because of the opportunities she’s received, she feels strongly about giving back.
“I do genuinely enjoy tutoring and mentoring — it’s very rewarding,” she says. “Especially with younger girls, because of my sisters, and me being female and a minority – just being able to help out and give advice and talk about things that I have struggled through. I want to see if I can help change that reality for someone else.
“The community grows not only when the leader grows but when the leader is able to instill that same growth strategy in everyone around them.”