Education Major Shares His Refugee Story and Success at UMKC

Ka Baw Say teaches us there is more to college - and life - than work and books
Ka Baw Say

Ka Baw Say '22
UMKC degree program: Education
Hometown: Pa Loe village in Myanmar (Burma)
High school: Number 3 High School in Karen refugee camp in Thailand

Get to know our people and you'll know what UMKC is all about.

Ka Baw Say immigrated to the United States when he was 19 years old with his older brother and sister.  He was driven to improve his life and his education, but one of his greatest lessons has been making time to make friends and have fun.

"We wanted a good future,” says Say of him and his siblings.  “Our parents did not come with us.  They were worried, but they didn’t want to stop us. They wanted us to have a good life.”

Say is a member of the Karen immigrant community. Because of political unrest and civil war in his home country of Myanmar (Burma), he and his family were constantly moving. Say entered a Karen refugee camp in Thailand when he was seven years old. The following 10 years were a struggle.

“Living in the refugee camp was like animals living in their stables,” he says. “We did not have an identity. Lives do not really mean anything there.”

Say spent his first three years in Kansas City getting oriented, working and teaching himself English.  He did not go to classes or use a tutor, but instead relied the internet. He learned very quickly.

“I love the language,” he said. “It’s so beautiful.  It is like listening to the birds singing.”

Student Ka Baw Say in Miller Nichols Library

Say worked, attended Metropolitan Community College and earned his high school equivalency certificate. When he felt he was ready he began to look for the best fit for college. He chose UMKC.

“UMKC is a place of diversity. I’m not afraid to express myself here. I needed to be in a place where I could be what I want to be.”

Say has been very involved with his niece and nephew. This led him to follow in his parents’ footsteps – who were teachers - to pursue a degree in education.

A student in the School of Education, he has secured teaching certificates in five subject areas and discovered a lot about his strengths and weaknesses during his student teaching.  He feels that experience will help him do a good job.

Say is warm and often smiling. His eyes are bright and curious. While his story seems one of continued success, he says he struggled with making friends. 

“I came from a place of one culture, one language, one color,” he says. “My country is not developed.  People don’t travel in the same way. They all have the same perspective.” 

He felt different when he came to the United States.

“In this country people seem so confident in who they are,” he says.

Ka Baw Say at 2018 scholar lunch

Say spent most of his time working and studying. The opportunity to initiate and develop friendships seemed inaccessible. But one day he stopped in the cafeteria and two students sitting a table asked him if he wanted some information on Phi Gamma Delta, a fraternity on campus.

“It changed everything,” Say says.

Joining the fraternity provided social connection; soon he began to develop friendships. Say realize that he needed more than school.

“I had been working so hard, that I had forgotten there were other things,” he says. “Then I realized these experiences were necessary for me to further my success. All the motivation and strength came from these connections. Everything seemed to move faster.”

Student Ka Baw Say speaking at scholar lunch

Say will take his Missouri Education General Education Associate test in May. This will qualify him to teach in Missouri schools when he graduates. While he is still humble about his accomplishments, he recognized that he has learned so much on his journey.

“Be determined,” he advises.  “Life is not simple and easy.  Put yourself out there, challenge yourself and get to know your environment.”

Student Ka Bow Say at library table

But beyond the work, he has gained insight into what will drive his life’s success and he would like to share his story – perhaps by writing a book - so other people know that they can accomplish the same things.

“When you can be who you are, that’s when you’re perfect.  Be a simple human. Simple, but perfect.”