“It’s always an exploration”: Talking Burma with 2014 Rhodes Scholar Courtney Wittekind

Joshua Barnes
Sampsonia Way

Six years ago, as an early graduate from William Mason high school, Courtney Wittekind doubts she could have even located Burma, the small southeast asian country, on a map. That completely changed after she spent her free year after high school working with a Burmese refugee community on the Thai-Burma border. This experience, during which she learned to speak Burmese from her host-mother, served as a catalyst for nearly all of her following course of study and professional career. This has included serving as an intern with Sampsonia Way magazine, a Burmese-English translator for City of Asylum Pittsburgh writer-in-residence Khet Mar, and a researcher on Southeastern Burmese refugee populations for the UNHCR.

Most recently, Wittekind has been named a 2014 Rhodes Scholar, an honor she describes as “unbelievable,” which she admits is not a word she uses often. With this scholarship she will travel to Oxford University to pursue a D.Phil. in Anthropology, with a personal focus on Burma. Fortuitously enough, in January 2013 Oxford University announced a series of new Burma-centric programs and Burmese guest-fellows for this academic year. Needless to say, Wittekind is elated; most universities in the United States still have little-to-no engagement with Burma.

Sampsonia Way spoke with Wittekind via Skype in December. At the time she was in Washington, D.C. working with The Brookings Institution and London School of Economics Project on Internal Displacement. In this interview she discusses the roots of her interest in Burma, what it was like to visit the country in January 2013 after political reforms began to take effect, and how she translates some of the more difficult aspects of the Burmese language.