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From Burma to ’Cuse: Custodial Supervisor Pawehmoo ‘Ma’ Thawtheet Pursues Growth, Learning and the American Dream
Pawehmoo Thawtheet, known affectionately as “Ma” by friends and colleagues, came to Syracuse by way of Thailand in the fall of 2007. A native of Burma (now known as Myanmar) and member of the Karen ethnic group, Thawtheet spent the early part of her life in refugee camps in Thailand after her family fled Burma due to its ongoing civil war.
Together with her parents and six siblings, Thawtheet moved frequently among various refugee camps, where she learned the importance of building community, pursuing new skills and learning new knowledge to improve her life.
“We had to move so many places, and the refugee camps kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually we became a village with over 100 houses and families,” Thawtheet says. “People would help each other out. Volunteers helped us learn the local language and how to read and write, which was very helpful to teach the next generation.”
It was there that the spark was lit within Thawtheet to keep learning, keep growing and never give up on her dreams. She finished high school in the Mae La refugee camp where she was settled, having developed a strong passion for learning and ambitions for her future.
Having studied biology, chemistry and law, and gaining skills in weaving, sewing and manicuring, Thawtheet says she would “sign up for just about anything, just to get to know something new.” She soon realized that career opportunities would be limited for her within the refugee camps of Thailand, and as the Mae La camp grew more and more crowded, Thawtheet set her sights on a bigger future.
“I told my parents, ‘I just want to go someplace to improve myself, because living here, our life is not going to get any better,’” she says. It took some convincing, but her family began to submit applications to emigrate from Thailand to a new country. “The countries were Australia, Canada, the UK [United Kingdom], the U.S., Korea, Japan…people would just go and apply, they didn’t care where we were going,” Thawtheet says. “The application that drew my name was the United States; and when the papers came, it said my destination was Syracuse, New York. I started asking people around, and no one knew of this place.”
On Sept. 11, 2007, Thawtheet arrived in Syracuse and was immediately captivated by life in America. “When I came here, I looked at everything and thought, ‘oh my goodness, this is so beautiful!’” she says. “And when you need the light, you just turned the light switch on. And then when you need to cook, you just turned the stove knob!”
She knew her family made the right choice and that they would have a better life here. Thawtheet enrolled in English language classes through the Northside CYO and began taking steps toward gainful employment. She worked briefly at the Embassy Suites hotel in Syracuse before her liaison at the Northside CYO encouraged her to apply for a position with Facilities Services at the University. In 2008, she became a member of the custodial staff and has spent the last 14 years growing her career.
Thawtheet is now a respected member of the custodial leadership team, known for her positive attitude and unstoppable work ethic. “As a custodian, Ma had a strong work ethic and incredible dedication to the University and our students,” says Mary Pat Grzymala, senior associate director of Facilities Services. “Her energy and enthusiasm made her rise to the top and take on a leadership role. As a supervisor, she is an excellent mentor and will assist in building a strong team to continue to serve our faculty, staff and students.”
Thawtheet attributes her success to two factors: her passion for learning about the various buildings, machines and tools on campus to excel in her role; and her dedication to working various shifts to gain as much experience and meet as many new people as possible over the years. As the direct supervisor of 30 people, she exemplifies the values of patience, teamwork and kindness, always going the extra mile to make sure her team is well-prepared and well-trained for the job at hand.
“I enjoy coming to work, and I always communicate with my coworkers on the phone or through text message to keep them motivated and informed,” she says. “Some of my teammates have become good friends. On the weekend, we’ll sometimes take our kids to the park and enjoy our days off together.”
She also says that responding to emergency requests from students is one of her favorite parts of the job. “The students go first,” she says. “Any time a customer or a student calls me for something, I’m going to do the job right and I’m training my staff to do it right, too.”
When she first began with the University, Syracuse students even helped Thawtheet improve her English language skills. “I remember, my English was not so good yet. I learned how to speak English by talking to students, talking to my coworkers, different people. I asked them to correct my pronunciation if I got it wrong and to teach me anything that I don’t know!” she says.
“We feel very blessed to have Ma as part of our custodial leadership team. She is an exemplary employee who leads with the compassion and vitality that is essential to this University’s operations and providing a clean and safe environment for everyone to enjoy,” says Pete Sala, senior vice president and chief facilities officer.
According to Thawtheet, she is the blessed one. In fact, she often wears a gold necklace emblazoned with the word Blessed in cursive font. “I count my blessings every single day,” she says. “I love it here. I’m so happy with my job, I love doing it, and I get along with everybody, everywhere I go.”