Nittaya Casey '24 spent countless lunches in Lonnstrom Dining Hall making countless pizzas. The 19-year-old line cook worked for College dining in 2015 and occasionally wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of the counter. It was a silly daydream, she thought. She would never be a Siena student...
A ten year old has the awesome ability to make a game out of almost anything almost anywhere. Nittaya Casey and her mom were living in a refugee camp in Thailand where they had sought asylum when the Myanmar government closed in on Nittaya's mom. The camp had no electricity or plumbing, and there was a single water faucet in the middle of their village. Posted on a big board at the center of the camp were house numbers and a corresponding time. During their designated time each day, the family had a brief window to fill up their watering jugs as quickly as they could.
"In a way, it was kind of like a game. It was fun."
Nittaya never knew her uncle. He participated in the 8888 Uprising – a protest movement in Burma that sparked on August 8, 1988 when students led marches and protests throughout the country. Nittaya's uncle was one of thousands who went missing, presumed dead or captured, for rising up against the one-party totalitarian state. Nittaya's mom, partly to keep her brother's memory alive, continued the movement in the shadows years later. She helped to organize political dissidents until she ended up on the government's radar. At the time, Nittaya and her mom lived just over the border in Thailand, but authorities interrogated her dad, who still lived in Myanmar (the ruling military government changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar after quashing the pro-democracy uprising). That's when Nittaya's life was uprooted.
"I was too young to be scared for myself, but I would later understand how scared my mom was. She's a complex woman, and didn't always treat me well. But she showed me, in a way, how to advocate for others. I'm grateful in a sense. She ingrained in me this service mentality."
Nittaya lived in the refugee camp for four years, and at one point, she convinced her mom she wanted to be a Buddhist monk, below left, and shaved her head (it was a desire she kept from her Muslim father). By 2014, her hair had mostly grown back, and Nittaya and her mom were relocated to the Capital Region through Catholic Charities.
Nittaya knew very little English, which made school nearly impossible. To make the situation worse, her mom was no longer able to care for her. Nittaya was placed in a foster home, and almost right away, life got better. Nittaya picked up the language faster and would graduate from Rensselaer High School. She got a job on the dining staff at Siena and started taking classes at SUNY Schenectady in 2019. When she finished her associate's degree, her foster family encouraged her to try for her bachelor's. She had always assumed she'd never be able to walk on Siena's campus as a student... until the day she was accepted this summer.
"I've been completely blown away by the teachers and the classes. I'm just so grateful. Around Thanksgiving, I had time to catch my breath and really reflect. I can't believe how far I've come."
The accounting major looks forward to a career in the accounting world when she graduates, but she'll divide her time with volunteer work that's become her passion.
Nittaya's currently renting a room at her foster family's home, which made getting together for Thanksgiving dinner easy. Because her foster family has made such a monumental impact on her life, Nittaya is now spending her free time advocating for foster care. Working with Fostering Youth Success Alliance, she's helping to plan a rally at the Governor's office in January. Their goal is to keep the Foster Youth College Success Initiative fully funded. The state program provides support and financial assistance to help foster youth achieve academic success.