”Are you my daddy?” was the question I asked most often as I was growing up in Rangoon. Burma. For as long as I could speak Burmese, I posed that question to every man who came into my grandparents’ auto shop For almost eight years, I longed to have a father and wondered why my mother had to raise my brother and I alone. In many ways I felt abandoned. All had was a picture of my father and stories my mother told of him.
I knew my life in Burma was not a normal one. I felt like a little bird in a cage. I wanted to spread my w1ngs and fly away. Since I was a little girl, we had soldiers stationed at our gate with rifles in hand quest10n1ng every guest that came to our home The phone lines were tapped and every mail we received was read My poor family never felt comfortable in their own home. At school, I had a difficult time making friends: my teachers and classmates seemed to keep their distance from me.
As I got older, I understood why my life was different. My father, Htun Aung Gyaw. was one of the leaders in the four eight movement (8-8-88), a nationwide peaceful demonstration that left a total of 10,000 people dead. The military regime was coming to capture my father after the demonstration and therefore, he fled the country for his life, leaving his family behind. I was only 6 months old at the time.
On the night of my 8th birthday. I stepped into flashing lights as reporters rushed to see the reunion between the Burmese freedom fighter and his family in a small airport in Ithaca, New York. After e1ght years of separation, I was reunited with my father. I felt so many emotions and questions for my rather as he hugged and kissed me. I will never forget my 8th birthday on October 27. 1994.
Even at a young age. I was curious about why my father had to flee his country. The more I questioned him, the more I felt passionate about Burma getting its freedom from the military Junta. I knew I had to work hard in school if I was to one day help out my beloved country. As a newcomer in elementary school, I worked hard to learn English and get to know my teachers. In middle school, I was accepted into the junior honors society and won the yearbook contest. I was a busy bee in high school, as the president for Habitat for Humanity, officer of the Honors Society, morning announcer, a rower and part-time worker.
I wanted to first focus my undergraduate degree in business and was attracted to the hospitality side of hotel management I believe that once Burma is free from the military Junta, we will need to know how to design and manage hotels and restaurants to keep attracting tourists to Burma. Tourism will definitely make a positive economic impact on the region.
In 2005, my hard work finally paid off when I was accepted to the number one Hotel Management program in the world – Cornell University. During my time at Cornell, I worked harder than ever to get the experience I needed to pursue my dream. As a first year college student, I worked at the Statler Hotel at Cornell, in both the front and back of house to gain knowledge of a hotel’s layout and flow of space. In the summer of my sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to be the LEED project leader for ex1sting buildings at Le Parker Meridien (LPM) in New York City. Working as an intern at LPM gave me the leverage to fine-tune my leadership skills through working side by side with their management team.
The summer after my junior year was thrilling for me, when I worked as an assistant to the Design Director of Elite Concepts in Hong Kong. Interning for Elite Concepts allowed me to develop my knowledge in the design of international restaurants and gave me the opportunity to develop my communication skills with people from all around the world.
With the knowledge and leadership skills acquired from my past internships. I was chosen to be the Design Director for the 84th Hotel Ezra Cornell (HEC) at the Hotel School in my senior year. As Design Director, I was challenged with creating and leading a team of ten talented designers responsible for developing and implementing the design concept for 12 food and beverage functions for the Hotel School’s alumni and leaders in tile hospitality Industry. I worked closely with the Hotel School’s Dean Johnson, h1s staff and the Statler Hotel to create a program, contact vendors and assemble a guest list. Along with working with Dean Johnson and my design team, I spent many hours with the Food and Beverage Director going over menus, floor layouts, uniforms and the overall budget for the events. At the end of my term as Design Director, I had learned not only about the practicalities and complexities of event planning, but also that I was capable of becoming an inspirational leader and communicator.
Having knowledge of hotel management, leadership and communication skills acquired at Cornell, I enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Des1gn (SCAD) to study at one of the top, nationally ranked interior design programs, with the interest of concentrating in hospitality design. At SCAD I became assimilated to a new culture and embraced every class, from five-hour studios to lecture classes on materials. environmental systems, theory and criticism and others – excelling in my classes. Most importantly, through my studies at SCAD I have learned to convey my ideas in a more refined manner through a visual language: process sketches and conceptual diagrams. and now understanding the value of a well thought out design.
Working with hands-on professors and strong course requirements at SCAD, I was able to effectively participate in a collaborative studio with architecture students designing luxury villas in New Delhi. Being a part of this selective studio helped me to learn to the importance of communication between architect and interior designer, and to clearly define specific job responsibilities. Working with an actual client was beneficial in understanding the communication process between client and design team.
In addition to my classes, I have taken on a leadership role as an officer of our IIDA/ASID student organization. For the campus center, we organized events for the student body by inviting distinguished guest lecturers and industry professionals, along with having ”meet and greet networking events with local design firms and showrooms. We also contribute through community service, for example, going to a local elementary school to help out with their school’s Halloween event, including decorating sugar cookies and organizing face painting activities with little children.
As I enter my final year at SCAD. I have noticed a trend of expans1on of tourism in the East, Pacific, and South As1a regions. Considering my dream of contributing to Burma’s economy through tourism, my thesis topic focuses on how interior designers can design flexible spaces for both public and private areas in hotels that cater to the needs of As1an business and leisure travelers. The intended outcome for the thesis protect is to create an environment utilizing technology and sensory-based design to ensure that travelers always feel comfortable in their surroundings.
I have realized how lucky I am to be receiving the quality of education available in the US. I hope to one day share the opportunities and freedom I was given with my fellow country men and women in Burma. Receiving this grant would mean so much to me and my family. My father has been unemployed for some time now and my mother has been sacrificing to assist in paying tor my education by working two jobs and using part of her retirement money. This grant would help cover expenses for my last year at SCAD and relieve some of my family’s financial stress. Although a long Journey, I feel proud of the achievements I have made in my life. Sixteen years ago I felt I was locked up in a cage. Now I will spread my wings and follow my dream.
Stewart B. Johnson once said. ”Our business in life is not to get ahead of others but to get ahead or ourselves-to break our own records, to outstrip our yesterdays by our today, to do our work with more force than ever before.” When I came upon this quote, I fell in love with the inspirational message it conveyed. Most times in life, we race to compete with others and live up to their standards But in order to be truly successful, the race and journey to success is one you make for yourself.
I have always set high standards for myself and established goals to be achieved at each transitional phase in my life. When I was accepted into Cornell, I knew I wanted to work in an urban setting and have the experience of learning a new culture. In the spring of 2007, I rece1vecl a call from the ”newyorkmart” Le Parker Meridien hotel informing me about an internship opportunity working on the hotel’s LEED-EB Program. I eagerly took the position and headed to the Big Apple determined to work and learn as much as I could.
Le Parker Meridien’s intern program, headed by the Director of Employee and Labor Relations, Ronni Myers, was an eight-week long program which included class learning experiences with homework, lectures given by departmental managers, and intern presentations. In addition, the interns worked in departments assigned to them. I was a part of the engineering department, where I worked alongside Chief Engineer, Tim Phillips. During my time in the Internship, I attended USGBC meetings and networking events, presented to directors and managers about how their departments could incorporate sustainable practices, researched approaches to Implementing alternative transportation for guests and employees and sent out an e-newsletter with information on how to incorporate eco- friendly strategies at the office. My two b1ggest achievements were implementing energy-saving CFLs throughout the hotel and finding a safer cleaning product. Envirox H20range2, for use by the housekeeping department.
My internship with Le Parker Meridien enabled me to apply knowledge and skills gained through my classroom learning experience in a ”real world’ setting. At the end of the internship, it was evident that my time at Le Parker Meridien shaped me to become a more independent, confident, and driven individual. I was no longer afraid to give presentations, talk to industry professionals, and find my way around the city to attend site visits and meetings I left the internship w1th a working knowledge of the process of achieving LEED certification; issues in hotel management, and the function of engineering departments within hotels.
During the summer of 2008, I was presented with a second internship opportunity working for a Hong Kong-based interior design firm, ec Studio by Elite Concepts. Before going to Hong Kong, I spent numerous hours at the library researching its culture, people, language and work ethics. That May, I anxiously boarded a twenty-one hour flight to Hong Kong ready to submerge myself in a new cultural experience, excited and nervous about my first Interior des1gn internship.
At the office, I was given two primary duties: evaluating design procedures and policies, and updating the design library. My duty of evaluating the design procedure included a development of a restaurant at the Venetian, Macau. Along with the guidance of my mentor. I oversaw the process from schematic drawings to the final specifications for FF&E and art work. I also had the opportunity to go to Macau for site visits and meetings with the client. In the meeting room, I saw the interaction of client and design team and began to understand the need for flexibility on the part of the design team and the importance of listening to the needs of the client. Most Importantly, I learned how critical construction documents are. While at the site my Director noticed that the construction crew misread the location of the drainage, therefore, the project was pushed back- which resulted in a huge loss in potential revenue and an Increase in expenses.
Through my other task, I gained experience in communicating w1th vendors about materiality and life-cycle costing. I learned about lighting, flooring materials, wall coverings, and product specifications for commercial spaces. I had the opportunity to discover emerging design trends in lighting fixtures, sound systems, and kitchen and bar equipment.
Along with acquiring through from my job responsibilities, I was also learning about the unique culture of Hong Kong. Surrounded by a diverse culture of people from all around the world, from the locals I learned about proper business customs such as using both hands and bowing when giving a business card to someone. From the expatriates, I learned about enjoying life to the fullest and having the hunger to travel and be adventurous. The biggest lesson I learned was that you can still enjoy life and have fun with friends while being focused and working hard.
The experience in Hong Kong represented the longest time I had been away from my family and friends. As one who is always surrounded by people and much love, when I was in Hong Kong, I was alone a lot of the time. In the beginning, it was daunting for me to eat by myself during lunch breaks, but as my internship went on, I began to embrace the time I had with myself, as I reflected on my experiences I also became more adventurous, visiting surrounding islands such as Lantau, Lamma, and Chang Chau, and towns including Mongkok. Stanley, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai and Kowloon.
My time at Le Parker Meridien helped me have an appreciation and respect for my passion in hotel management and in promoting sustainable pract1ces The experience at ec Studio by Elite Concepts instilled in me a strong des1re to pursue an MFA in Interior Design. Living in Hong Kong for the summer made me appreciate life and family with a whole new perspective. I have truly enjoyed my unique experiences and feel fortunate to have met and worked with such highly driven people. I w111 be forever grateful for these two amazing Internships which have contributed so significantly to making me the independent, creative, and motivated individual that I am evolving into today.