College can feel isolating for anyone, but for someone in a new country, that feeling is amplified. In the midst of that feeling of loneliness, Nobel Htoo has her eyes set on returning to refugee camps in Thailand and her village in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
"Someone to look up to"
"Stay focused. Be motivated. Be strong. Be kind." That's the mantra Nobel says to herself every morning before classes at Hartwick College in Oneonta. All she wants is to earn her nursing degree.
"I’m very nervous, but I try to do my best and I pray, too," said Nobel. "When I pray, I just ask God to help me with school. Then I will serve people.”
She feels like she hasn't started her life yet - a life she wants to devote to serving the Karen people in Burma. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the military harassed the Karen people. Nobel’s mom told her they set her grandfather on fire.
They fled to Thailand, where her family lived in refugee camps, but she was often separated from them in orphanages. Foreigners would come in to teach.
“I would talk to them and ask them about their country and I’d say, ‘Oh my god, these people they can travel. They can work. How cool that is.' It’s very inspiring," said Nobel. "When you have someone just to connect to you, talk to you, you feel very great and like you have someone to look up to, you know?"
Playing the go-between
At college in the U.S., connection has been hard. Schoolwork is a struggle. She can feel isolated and she has a lot on her plate both academically and personally.
Like many children of immigrants, Nobel serves as a go-between for her mom. At one point, her mom's landlord thought her mom hadn't paid rent and charged her a fine. Nobel had to explain that she had paid. Then, she called her mom to say she'd worked it out with the landlord.
Money for Nobel herself is tight. She owes the school a couple thousand dollars.
"My younger sister and I, we both are full time [students] and my mom is the only one who works. She’s exhausted, so that’s why I try not to bother her or anything," said Nobel. "I solve my own problems. I work here. I pay my own rent. When I don’t have it, then I tell them. But, most of the time, I isolate myself so I don’t put any pressure on my family.”
Looking for connection
Dating is another issue. When she's gone out with Karen guys, they've often suggested she keep a home for them and quit school. Instead, she quit dating.
“If I’m not stubborn and follow the herd, then I’ll just be like other women. Eighteen, get married, have kids, and I’m not like that. So, I date. Broke up. Date again. Broke up. Date again. Broke up. It’s always like that," said Nobel. "People call me a player. Maybe I am."
"How do I work things out? I have a better plan. My motivation and my happiness are not from a guy, it’s from the thing that I do."
Besides guys, it’s also hard to relate to other students. They don't have much in common, she said, since she's already 26. Her best friend is another young Karen woman at Hartwick in the year beneath her.
Driven to improve
Mostly, Nobel talks with college staff and faculty.
“She’s quite an amazing person,” said Julia Suarez Hayes, coordinator for the Writing Center, where Nobel works as a receptionist.
Suarez Hayes and Nobel sometimes talk through idioms, like "beat around the bush" or pronounce tricky words.
"The bottom of the cup. Then butter, the one that we eat. And then the one that you..." Nobel motions to her shirt.
"Oh, to button!" said Suarez Hayes. "We'll have to do some tongue twisters that'll help you."
What drives Nobel's desire to keep improving is her plan to return to Southeast Asia to do humanitarian work.
"I want her to be tough"
“I’m more useful when I’m in Burma and Thailand because I can do more things. But here, I’m just a normal person," said Nobel.
She got a taste of medical work during a brief internship in Thailand recently. On the wall of Hartwick College's Office of Global Education, there’s a photo of Nobel smiling widely with a baby she became attached to.
“I named her Nobel because when I was there, she didn’t have a name. They called her 'RH1, RH2,' like ‘Reproductive Health 1, Reproductive Health 2,'" said Nobel. "I wanted to name her. I want her to be tough.”
Nobel plans to go back this summer to work on clean water systems for her village.
It’s in doing humanitarian work back in Burma she feels love and warmth.