Love Story: Myanmar Couple Getting High School Equivalency Diplomas From MATC

Mark Feldmann,

December 15, 2023

Paul and Lian

Having a high school diploma is key to everything for us. You can get a job, you can go to college and you can make a better future.

Lian Nu MATC HSED 5.09 program graduate and Myanmar native

Love, the good book says, is patient and kind. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love, along with the rewarding, productive programs and committed instructors found at Milwaukee Area Technical College, helped Paul Sum and Lian Nu — a married couple who came to the United States from Malaysia in 2014 — vastly improve their English and, more important, earn their High School Equivalency Diplomas (HSED).

The couple, who took English classes at the same time they demonstrated competency in a variety of subjects in MATC’s HSED 5.09 program, will receive their diplomas at the GED/HSED graduation ceremony on Monday, December 18, at MATC’s Cooley Auditorium.

“Having a high school diploma is key to everything for us,” said Lian, mother to the couple’s three children. “You can get a job, you can go to college and you can make a better future.”

Both Paul and Lian were born in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. They grew up in the same town in Chin State, a mountainous and sparsely populated area in western Myanmar. They belong to an ethnic group called Zomi, who often faced discrimination and persecution, according to the United Nations.

The couple attended the same church, and their families knew each other. They married in 2009 but quickly left Myanmar because of the strife and turmoil affecting the country. 

In neighboring Malaysia, Paul worked while Lian attended college for a year before staying at home to raise their children. In 2014, Lutheran Social Services found them a place in the United States: Milwaukee. “They told us we were going somewhere very cold,” Lian said. 

They arrived in the United States on June 18, 2014, knowing hardly anyone. They struggled to find work and to get around. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the entire family caught the virus.

“We had no car. We didn’t speak much English,” Paul said. “It was a very difficult life.” 

The couple also discovered that nearly every job in the United States required a high school diploma. Without proof of completing high school in Myanmar, the couple decided to go back to school and get an American high school degree.

They read online about MATC and had several friends tell them about the college. They began attending English as a Second Language classes and then started the HSED 5.09 program, a competency-based option designed to be completed in one to two semesters. Students in the 5.09 program must demonstrate mastery of competencies identified by the Wisconsin Technical College System in communication, social studies, science, math, health, civics and employability.

Earning an HSED can help individuals improve their chances to find work, increase earnings and pursue additional education, said Holly Thielen, MATC’s 5.09 HSED program coordinator.

For Paul and Lian, the path was even thornier because they were strengthening their English at the same time. “They were essentially enrolled in two programs,” Thielen said. “And that is not easy.”

While taking classes, Paul found work at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Oak Creek, and Lian cared for the couple's three children, ages 13, 12 and 8. The days were long, but they wanted to improve their lives.

“We almost gave up so many times,” Lian said. “But my husband encouraged me, and I encouraged him. He kept reminding me that we needed to fight for this.”

The couple praised their ESL instructor, Tammy Ginster, for her patience and encouragement. “She never tired of teaching us,” Lian said. “Many times my body was in class, but my mind was elsewhere, thinking about cooking, cleaning. She helped us focus.”

“Their perseverance has been inspirational,” Ginster said. “They have been juggling English classes along with a busy family life, work responsibilities, and church and community involvement. It has not been easy for them, and even when they felt discouraged, they always seemed to find a way to move forward with positivity. It has been my pleasure and good fortune to have had the opportunity to work with such lovely and inspiring people.” 

With their diplomas in hand, Lian said she is thinking about opening her own business or becoming a nutritionist or dietitian. Paul said he wants to be a sound engineer and plans to start classes at MATC.

“We are so, so proud to have finally made it,” Paul said. “Without a high school diploma it is hard to get a job anywhere in America. As immigrant parents, we are the example for our children. We want to encourage them and show them our efforts.”

Learn about MATC’s GED and HSED programs

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 30,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.