In the Spotlight
Adventures of a Fulbright Scholar
Professor Shares Stories, Insights From Year in Southeast Asia
November 7, 2016
Sterken is presented a gift by Her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, where he spoke on the American election process.
Dr. Robert Sterken visited Washington, D.C., for the first time as a teenager. With its imposing national monuments, memorials and buildings, including the iconic United States Capitol, Washington was a stark contrast to Sterken's hometown of Alvin, a rural community in Southeast Texas. But Sterken was most impressed with what was taking place inside the Capitol's legislative chambers.
He was visiting the city with his civics teacher as part of the Close Up Foundation's national program for high school students, a weeklong immersion in Congress and Washington.
The program gave Sterken a front row seat to democracy and the political process in action. "I was fascinated by it all and I've been studying it ever since,'' said Sterken, now an associate professor of political science at The University of Texas at Tyler.
Just as his first visit to Washington set the stage for his future as a political science educator, researcher and author, a trip there in 2014 marked the start of a new chapter for Sterken.
A year earlier, he had applied to the Fulbright Scholar Program, an international exchange initiative that sends faculty to other countries for a year of teaching and/or research. Sterken's dream was to teach and do research in Southeast Asia.
Funded by the U.S. government, Fulbright Scholars are chosen based on their leadership and academic merits and abilities to teach, conduct research and contribute to solutions for shared international concerns.
With still no word about his Fulbright application, Sterken, while in Washington on business in 2014, stopped by the program's headquarters to inquire about it.
He met with a Fulbright agent, who engaged him in small talk, mostly about the difficulty of being accepted to the program. Just when Sterken was beginning to feel discouraged, the agent handed him an envelope.
"I asked her what it was and she smiled and said, 'just open it.' So I did. The contents of that envelope changed my life,'' Sterken said of the letter informing him he would spend a year as a Fulbright Scholar in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Experience Like No Other
International travel was nothing new to Sterken, whose areas of specialization include international law and relations and Asian politics. Since joining the UT Tyler faculty in 2000, his work has included serving as associate provost for international programs and taking students on travel-study trips around the world, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. But he had never been to Myanmar, the largest nation of mainland Southeast Asia.
"This was way beyond anything I'd ever done before,'' Sterken said of his time in Myanmar, from October 2015 to September 2016.
"What would it be like to live, research and teach in the isolated land of pagodas, thanaka, heat, Thingyan, betel, longyis, Buddhists, monsoon rains, dengue fever, a military government, monks, nuns, and could I actually do it? The struggles, challenges, adventures, people and even the answers to the most mundane of questions brought insights, lessons and gifts of a lifetime.''
While in Myanmar, Sterken wrote a book about his Fulbright experience. "Teaching Barefoot in Burma,'' published in October by the Yangon School of Political Science Press, includes stories and insights from his Fulbright year, with a forward by his wife, Allison, who spent time with him in Myanmar. Sterken is writing a second book, focusing on the research he conducted.
Land of Wonder
Myanmar was Sterken's Fulbright destination of choice for more reasons than one.
"It goes back to my childhood, actually. When I was a kid growing up on a rural farm, I joined Future Farmers of America and studied rice growing because that is done on the South Texas coast. I was taught to judge rice, so I had to learn about its origins. Myanmar is the rice bowl of the world, so I became interested in that area of the world,'' said Sterken, an avid reader since childhood.
"As my career unfolded, I started researching the intersection of religion and politics. Myanmar is an interesting case study in that because it has an ancient tradition of having Buddhism as a seamless part of the government,'' the professor said.
Sterken's research took him throughout Myanmar. "I went to monasteries, schools, universities and I sat on mats and interviewed monk after monk after monk about different aspects of the relationship between religion and their government. I lost track of how many I interviewed, probably 50 Buddhist monks,'' he said.
"It is interesting when religion and government are intertwined as they are in Myanmar. What happens is the government tends to overrun the power of the church and the church tends to be responsive to what the government needs. The power of government becomes very effective and tends to corrupt the religion.''
Sterken also spoke publicly about democracy and served as a consultant in political election and school accreditation processes. The country is transitioning to democracy after more than five decades of oppressive military rule. Reforms include efforts to strengthen the education system, which was weakened under the military regime.
"I worked for the U.S. Embassy in Yangon and in Bangkok, and my job aside from teaching and research was the presentation of democracy and the values of open society. I did a lot of public speaking about that, because people are interested in those topics,'' he said.
His speaking engagements included presenting the American presidential election process at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok as part of the Fulbright East Asia Pacific Regional Travel Program. The seminar was attended by Her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies and military cadets from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.
Teaching Barefoot and Living the Life
Isolated from the rest of the world during military rule from 1962 to 2012, Myanmar is a developing nation. Housing with modern plumbing and kitchen facilities is rare and can be expensive.
Based in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city with a population of nearly six million, Sterken found an apartment to rent within his budget near Yangon University, one of three schools where he taught political science and international relations. The seventh-floor apartment included a bathroom with a cold-water-only shower and a kitchen with a small refrigerator. Electric power outages occurred almost daily in Yangon, so refrigerated food tended to spoil quickly.
"The people of Myanmar eat out a lot, but not in restaurants; they eat street food,'' Sterken said. "There may be someone sitting one the corner selling corn on the cob, another selling rice ... that's how people in Myanmar eat.''
Experiencing waves of culture shock early on, Sterken adapted to the lifestyle partly due to the kindness and generosity of local people.
"The people in Myanmar are very gracious and very generous. There's a group in London that ranks the generousness of societies and they ranked the people of Myanmar as the most generous people on earth. Americans are ranked second, by the way,'' Sterken said.
"The people of Myanmar routinely volunteer their time and give to others, even though they are very, very poor. So they were very generous to me. I would feel culture shock and they would take care of me. My teaching assistants, my faculty would take care of me, and in a genuine and unpretentious way.''
Sterken said he "plunged deeply into life in Myanmar,'' doing his best to move with the pace and rhythm of the land. He ate local food, drank tea with strangers, visited with taxi drivers, spent time with his neighbors, saw ancient pagodas and woke to the sound of chanting monks.
He even grew accustomed to teaching barefoot, which inspired the title of his book.
In Myanmar, shoes are not worn in places of worship. The custom also applies to the classroom, Sterken discovered on his first day of teaching.
"I walked up to the door and there were all these sandals at the entry. I'd never taught barefoot before, but I took off my shoes, reluctantly took off my socks and I went in to teach. And it was hard to teach without shoes. I felt kind of naked or unprepared or vulnerable,'' he said.
"But I reached a point where I was comfortable wearing flip flops to school and taking them off at the door and just teaching barefoot. It changed the nature of teaching in some sense. It made teaching more earthy or grounded, because it wasn't about me or my dress or my appearance.''
Up Close and Personal
Sterken taught at Myanmar Institute of Theology, a private university founded in the 1800s by Baptists from Pennsylvania, and then at Yangon School of Political Science, which was established underground by former political prisoners when studying political science was banned in Myanmar.
His third teaching assignment was at Yangon University. Built by the British in the 1800s and modeled after Oxford University, it became a world class institution but was dynamited and shut down by the military government in the 1960s. Reopened in 2013, classes are held in the few remaining buildings, which collectively resemble an abandoned castle, Sterken said.
Each school presented unique teaching experiences.
At YSPS, for example, he taught students who had experienced politics on a personal level. "Some of them had lived as political prisoners, some were members of parliament, so they had lived the politics and now they were getting the theory and the reading to go with it,'' he said.
During a lecture about sovereignty and whether a state could keep out other governments, they discussed the cyclone that hit Myanmar in 2008. It killed thousands and left millions stranded without food and water. The U.S. Navy sent ships loaded with food and water to assist, but were refused entry by the military government.
"During the discussion, one of the students in the front row, a young man about 30, starts to cry, big tears rolling down his cheeks, and he says, 'My sisters died while our government kept your government out,' '' Sterken said.
"I was able to feel and see government in a way like never before, because of what my students had experienced.''
'Gifts' of a Lifetime
Returning to the UT Tyler this fall, the professor shares stories with students, faculty and staff about his year in Myanmar.
The Fulbright experience was life-changing for Sterken in many ways, he said.
"One is that being in Myanmar allowed me to see humanity in a way that I had never seen it before. It's almost as if I was seeing humans without the veil of superficial covering. The people there are poor and very basic. There's not a lot of pretense to things, so I was able to see humans as we really are,'' said Sterken, who refers to such enlightenments as "gifts.''
"All of that experience left me feeling OK with who I am,'' he said.
"I can tell you I'm a kid from a poor farm in Alvin, Texas. I don't need to put on airs or pretend. That was a great gift.''