Rhodes scholar to focus study on Burma

Wittekind is fourth CMU graduate

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Burma, a country in southeastern Asia with a history of ethnic civil wars, has long interested Courtney Wittekind.

Now, as a Rhodes scholar, she'll have the chance to study it further.

Ms. Wittekind, 23, a 2013 Carnegie Mellon University graduate originally from Mason, Ohio, was one of the 32 Americans named Saturday as a 2014 Rhodes scholar from an original pool of 1,750 students who sought the award this year.

The distinction makes her one of four Carnegie Mellon graduates to ever receive the scholarship, and the first to receive it since 2002.

The program covers the full cost of attending Oxford University in England for two to four years, for a value of about $50,000 a year, according to the Rhodes Trust. Ms. Wittekind will use the award to pursue a doctorate in anthropology, with a geographical focus on Burma. Her program of study will begin in the fall of 2014.

"It's really good timing," she said in a phone interview Monday, because she said Oxford has begun a set of Burma-related programs and there should be additional opportunities to improve her Burmese language skills.

Her first introduction to Burma came when she was a high school graduate. She graduated early, then traveled to Thailand for nine months to volunteer at a school that happened to serve a refugee and migrant community from neighboring Burma, also known as Myanmar. There, she became close with a family that had left the often-turbulent country.

"I was really touched by the people I met," Ms. Wittekind said, remembering her first encounter with the Burmese people in 2009.

So much so, that as a student at CMU, she continued learning about Burma. She took summer language lessons in Burmese at the University of Wisconsin, then studied abroad near Thailand's border with Burma, living with Burmese migrant communities.

She graduated from CMU in May with an interdisciplinary degree in art and anthropology with a focus on displaced persons and refugees, after visiting Burma for the first time in January and spending the second semester of her senior year working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Now, she is doing an internship at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Her goal, eventually, is to move into the research and policy field related to Burma, with the aim of answering the question that she has pondered as she has completed her coursework, visited Burma and spoken with Burmese refugees:

"How do individuals merge from these histories, and how does a country do that as a whole, and more broadly, in what ways can the international community support that?"

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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