Student Exchange

Uncertain Future for Myanmar Youth as the Global UGRAD Program Suspended


The Global UGRAD, a prestigious exchange program offering life-changing opportunities for youths across the world, has been suspended for Myanmar applicants, leaving a generation's future uncertain.

The Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (Global UGRAD) is a fully-funded undergraduate exchange program sponsored by the US Department of State and operated by World Learning. The annual program brings over 300 foreign undergraduate students from more than 60 countries to the US to spend a semester at over 80 host universities and colleges. Through the Global UGRAD Program, students explore American education, development, and culture while immersing themselves in a global network of students and scholars. A special aspect of the program is that both exchange students and US students can learn from each other and gain a nuanced understanding of global perspectives. The Global UGRAD program is particularly valuable for students from developing countries like Myanmar (Burma) to get a taste of US education and development that contributes to their personal aspirations and their dreams of making Myanmar a better place.

However, the Global UGRAD program has been suspended indefinitely for Myanmar applicants in 2024. The suspension stems from several participants from the 2023-2024 cohort not returning to Myanmar. The program regulations require UGRAD participants to return home and contribute to their communities. On February 10th, 2024, the Myanmar Armed Forces (known as the “junta”) reinstated the 2010 People's Military Service Law, also known as the conscription law, as the junta's control over territories reduced significantly with many soldiers suffering casualties at the hands of the resistance forces.

This conscription law compels young people to serve in the military, mostly against their will. Student Z (pseudonym), a former 2023-2024 UGRAD participant from Myanmar, said that Z decided to seek Temporarily Protected Status (TPS) in the US instead of returning to Myanmar because he feared the worsening conscription situation in their hometown. According to student Z, local authorities under the junta contacted Z’s family multiple times regarding conscription while Z was participating in the program in the US.

The Global UGRAD program abruptly halted participation for Myanmar students who had already been chosen for the 2024-2025 cohort. This news came as a shock to Student A (pseudonym), who is a selected finalist, as A received a cancellation email instead of the expected host university assignment announcement. Similarly, Student B (pseudonym), another selected finalist student admitted that B was excited to experience freedom: freedom from fear, limited access, and prejudice in the US and to reproduce that freedom back in Myanmar. Those two selected students shared their dashed dreams of education and a taste of American liberty with the East-West Center in Washington. Although Students A and B sympathize with those former Global UGRAD participants who did not return to Myanmar, they believe program rules should be upheld to avoid hindering future cohorts. Student Z who sought TPS suggested that the program should find alternative solutions instead of a complete cancellation. This suspension of the Global UGRAD program has sparked much debate among Myanmar’s youth.

The suspension of the Global UGRAD program has dealt another blow to Myanmar's struggling youth. Many have lost educational opportunities due to the ongoing political turmoil. With limited access to quality education within the country and the UGRAD program being terminated, the path for Myanmar's youth for pursuing higher education and contributing to a better Myanmar is further obstructed. The program should explore alternative solutions to maintain access for deserving students. Finding a way to keep the program open, even in a modified form, would demonstrate continued support for Myanmar's future leaders during this difficult time.

The author, an East-West Center in Washington Young Professional, spoke to three students who were involved with the UGRAD program. They have chosen to remain anonymous, due to fear of reprisals from the Myanmar Junta. The author thanks them for their contributions.

Nyan is a Young Professional Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. Currently, he is a rising junior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at Parami University.