Photo Information

Ei Ei Naing poses for a photo at Recruiting Sub-Station West Des Moines, Iowa, January 6, 2021. Naing is the recipient of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Scholarship for Recruiting Station Des Moines Iowa/Nebraska. Born into a refugee camp, Naing and her parents immigrated to the United States for a better life and provide their daughter with better opportunities. (Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Smithers, Timothy, R./Released)

Photo by Sgt. Timothy Smithers

Asian-American immigrant awarded NROTC Marine option scholarship

1 Feb 2021 | Sgt. Timothy Smithers 9th Marine Corps District

There are many different paths to the Marine Corps. Some are more unexpected than others. For one high school student in Des Moines, Iowa, that path has been lengthy and difficult.

Ei Ei Naing is one of the recipients of the Naval Reserve Officer Training scholarship, a highly competitive program with an acceptance rate of less than 20 percent. While achieving this scholarship is by no means an easy task, Naing’s journey to earn it is nothing short of incredible.

Naing was born in the Mae La refugee camp in the Tha Song Yang district of Thailand. Her family is ethnic Karen (kah-ren) who fled Myanmar due to fear of armed conflict and ethnic persecution. They walked for three days in order to reach the refugee camp at the Thailand/Myanmar Border.

The first four and a half years of Naing’s life were spent living in Mae La. She lived in a small bamboo house without locks on their doors and a communal single bathroom stall for several other families living close by. Calling it a bathroom stall might be generous as it was a hole in the ground with some sticks, they didn’t have toilet paper.

“There wasn’t really a lot, there was one TV and everybody would gather in this one house if we wanted to watch,” said Naing.

Naing’s parents operated a makeshift shop selling assorted items and did everything in their power to provide for Ei Ei. Knowing that life in a refugee camp lacks opportunity for a small child, the Naings set out to change that.

They applied, through the UN, to immigrate to another country for better opportunities. Although there were a number of countries accepting applications, they settled on the United States because of the ability for someone to choose their own profession and attend college despite gender or social status.

“In [Myanmar] there is a lot of inequality. Women can’t go into the temples because they are considered dirty or unclean. My parents decided to go to the United States because there are so many opportunities,” said Naing.

The Naings went through a lengthy application and vetting process before they could make the lengthy flight to the U.S. Their financial sponsor had arranged for their housing and employment in a small town outside of Houston, Texas.

Once established, Naing was enrolled in school. It was at this point she would receive a crash course in integrating into a new culture. Simple concepts that most Americans take for granted were complete unknowns for Naing, such as using a toilet with running water and utensils for eating. Lacking the basic English language skills to ask for help, she watched and mimicked her peers to adapt to this new environment.

As her proficiency in English progressed, her parents would come to rely on Ei Ei’s ability to translate for them.

At the age of nine, Naing and her mother had to go to the hospital for an appointment. There was a problem with their medical ID card and the receptionist at the hospital told her to call the number on the back of the card. After calling, Naing had to understand the call center operator, relay the information to the hospital receptionist, and translate that information back to her mother.

“I think that was really difficult for me because I was so young and I didn’t really understand what was happening,” said Naing.

In spite of the language barrier Naing continued to progress, especially in school. She maintained mostly straight A’s eventually joining the honor society. However, Naing was never really passionate about anything.

After relocating to Des Moines, Naing enrolled at North High School. In a place few would look, Naing discovered her passion: the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.

It was the discipline, self-motivation, and competition in the JROTC program that captivated Naing. At the beginning of her freshman year, she signed up for the class and unbeknownst to her this would be a decision that would have a lasting impact on her life.

“ROTC really changed me because it made me improve myself,” said Naing. “I was constantly being pushed by my instructors and my peers around me.”

Over the next three years, her instructors and fellow students emboldened Naing to push herself in ways she never thought she could. Seeing the self-motivation, especially from her retired Marine instructors, created a desire for her to change the direction of her life. All of this would eventually lead to Naing visiting a Marine Corps Recruiting office.

While in the process of enlisting in the Marine Corps, Naing heard about the Marine Corps Option NROTC scholarship from one of the recruiters. The program offers recipients a full ride scholarship to any college with a Marine Corps NROTC program.

When Naing learned of the requirements and collegiate benefits, she decided to apply for the scholarship. With the scholarship’s requirements being so high, she never thought she’d get selected in spite of scoring high on standardized tests, getting straight A’s in school and maintaining a Marine Corps first class physical fitness standard.

However, Naing would be shocked by a seemingly uneventful recruiting office visit. As the recruiters and her fellow potential applicants gathered around, she didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t until they presented her with an oversized check for $180,000 that it finally sank in.

“I didn’t understand what was going on, I was just kind of looking around trying to see what’s happening,” said Naing. “Then I realized it’s for me. I was really happy to because this was the next step to becoming that better version of myself.”

Despite the pride in their child, Naing’s parents, especially her mother, had some apprehension about their daughter joining the armed forces.

Initially, when Naing was going to enlist, her mother worried about when she would go to college. Now with that settled, the next obstacle was the Naing family losing their daughter’s ability to translate for her parents. After talking over the details, Naing’s mother is confident about her daughter going to college and relying more on her sons to assist in translating.

“[My mom] didn’t want me to go into the military at first, we struggled with that. But I told her, ‘You came to the United States so that I could choose something I was passionate about,’ I choose the military,” said Naing.

Naing wants to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and study business marketing. While in college she will be required to attend Officer Candidates School during one of her summer breaks. The six week course will test her in the areas of academics, leadership and physical fitness.

Upon graduating from college and successfully completing OCS, Naing will be commissioned as a second lieutenant. She will then attend The Basic School for another six months of training before being assigned to her military occupational specialty school and upon completion of training, her first duty station. It is Naing’s hope to be assigned to the intelligence field.

After the Corps, Naing wants to utilize her degree and Marine Corps experience to open her own business and buy her parents a house. In her culture, it is the responsibility of the children to take care of the parents when they are older and retired.

“I wanted to use the scholarship so that I can have better opportunities and better resources to take care of [my parents],” said Naing. “They came here despite the obstacles and what they had to face so I want to show them how grateful I am for them.”

Naing and her family have faced obstacle after obstacle in order to get where they are. It is these previous trials and tribulations that will assist her in her journey through college and Marine Corps training. Everything that she has been through will contribute to obtaining her goals of graduating college, becoming a Marine Corps officer, and exemplifying the Marine Corps’ motto Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful.


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9th Marine Corps District