"This is a prominent place which taught students to love the truth and to fight for it," said Zaw Zaw Min, who participated in the 1988 student demonstrations and, like his father and his son, served time as a political prisoner. He said before the recent renovations, the state of the campus made him deeply sad. "It was like a damaged city," he said.
There is a real hunger for learning among many young people in Myanmar.
Aung Kaung Myat, 19, studies English at Yangon's University of Foreign Languages. "Everything is messed up," he said. "I don't want to blame my teachers. They are just the things in the system."
Literature class involves reading out loud and poetry is mostly memorization, he said. For books in English, he heads to the well-stocked library of the American Center, a cultural outpost of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. He got so frustrated at the poor syllabus and teachers who seemed to know little about their subjects that he wrote an angry letter to the Ministry of Education, which he convinced a bunch of his friends to sign. His professor found out before he could send it, called his parents and threatened to expel him, he said.
Still, he'd like to pursue a master's degree at the University of Yangon.
"Maybe it's better than the Yangon University of Foreign Languages," he said.
July San, 23, is pursuing a master's in computer science at the University of Yangon. She said there are only 5 students in her class.
"We want more students. More and more and more! And we don't want to see this long grass anymore," she said, gesturing at the weeds behind her.
"We should thank Obama," she added. At least he managed to get the Convocation Hall spruced up in time for her graduation.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report.
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