Akari “Amy” Myint never imagined she could feel so independent—traveling on her own to SoCal, studying business marketing at Santa Monica College, shaping her future in a wide-open global arena. The 20-year-old international student from Yangon, Myanmar, will be graduating from SMC this coming spring, and will then transfer this summer to Cal State Long Beach. She hopes someday to live and work in Australia.
All of that is in sharp contrast to a hemmed-in childhood that felt like a revolving door between her sheltered home and the hospital.
“I was born with a hole in my heart,” Amy explains. Diagnosed with an atrial septal defect at age 3, she suffered frequent bouts of vomiting, dizziness and arrhythmia. Isolated and bullied, she “missed a lot of school days,” she recalls, “because I was in the hospital every month. They called me ‘the heart-attack girl.’”
By third grade, Amy had fallen far behind academically—her school’s principal did not allow her to take the final exam and she was formally suspended. For the next two years, she was home-schooled by private tutors. The setbacks only stiffened her spine.
“It’s funny, when you’re told as a kid not to do something, you want to do it even more. For me, it was school. I wanted to go so badly! I would read textbooks on my own,” she says.
At age 12, the hole in Amy’s heart spontaneously closed, and her health bounced back. Returning to school posed challenges, but once she got her bearings, Amy was an ace—both academically and on the volleyball court. When it came time for her to take the IGCSE qualifying exams for international university admissions, the former ‘heart-attack girl’ delivered a kill shot.
“It surprised my parents a lot,” she says, of her high test scores.
It worried them, too. Amy is the only girl in her family, and her protective parents were reluctant to let her go abroad for college. Two older brothers had moved into the family business straight out of high school. Amy’s father runs a private company dealing with generators. Her youngest brother is only eight. Before Amy set out alone for California, family vacations to nearby Phuket or Bangkok were the sum total of her international experiences.
“Sending me all the way here was a huge, huge step for my parents, and for me too,” she says.
She was linguistically well-prepared: while the family speaks Burmese at home, Amy’s English is excellent from having attended international schools all her life. She also speaks conversational Hindi and Urdu, having binge-watched countless Bollywood movies with her mom.
Amy eventually persuaded her parents to let her enroll at SMC.
During her first semester, she lived in Alhambra with an uncle who insisted on driving her to and from school—a tough 25-mile commute each way. She now rents a room in the home of a Santa Monica resident.
She says she enjoys her independence. A hard-working student, Amy is currently taking 15-units of calculus, economics, statistics and counseling courses. She’s active in the Scholars Program. Her parents pay Amy’s major expenses, but she earns extra cash as a student worker at the International Education Center, wearing many hats: peer mentor, Unibuddy and campus tour guide.
For fun, Amy watches crime documentaries and listens to pop music. Taylor Swift is her favorite artist.
Formerly shy, Amy has made many new friends, including fellow peer mentors Gabriella Jimenez, an international student from Peru, and Andrea Morales, who is from Colombia.
She also likes to hang out with faculty. “I’m very close to my professors,” she says. “They love me to the point that my classmates sometimes hate me,” she adds, laughing. When accused of “kissing up” to professors, Amy points out that she keeps these relationships going long after final grades are posted. Accounting instructor William Platz and math instructor Barbara Bronie are particular favorites. A year after taking their courses, Amy says, “I still have conversations with them. They write recommendations for me . . . tell me about interesting campus job openings.”
Amy hasn’t been home in nearly two years, no thanks to issues around visa renewal. But she traverses the 8,200-mile distance daily (yes, daily!) via video chats. “My mom is a very emotional person. She cries whenever we talk,” Amy says, “and my dad—he’s very attached to me.” The family recently moved into a new home in Yangon and is remodeling Amy’s room. “I can’t wait to see it in person,” she says.
Academically, Amy is on track to graduate from SMC next spring with a 4.0 GPA. Perfect grades and strong faculty recommendations could have easily gotten her into a UC. Amy’s decision to transfer to Cal State was driven by financial considerations: as an international student, the tuition savings are substantial.
“I don’t want to burden my dad,” she explains. “He’s already spent so much on my education. And he has three other kids.”
Amy’s atrial septum may have fully repaired itself, but figuratively speaking, this young Corsair’s heart just keeps on growing.
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