2012 Curtis Award recipient: 'What have you done today to help others?'

Add another accolade to sitcom star Ray Romano’s résumé: English teacher. The distinction might appear surprising, but it's true.

Romano and his dysfunctional TV family have left a meaningful impression on Pakao Mon, this year’s recipient of the Melvin Curtis Award for Academic Excellence. The award is Ivy Tech Community College–Northeast’s highest honor for a graduating student based on academic achievement and community service.

Romano, who played the lead on the self-titled “Everybody Loves Raymond” for nine seasons, became a mentor to Pakao, as she practiced her English skills after emigrating from Burma. With his thick New York accent, Romano made an unusual choice as a language tutor for a newly minted Midwesterner.

“I started watching episodes of ‘Raymond’ repeatedly, focusing on the closed-captioning, and when I came across words I didn’t understand, I would look them up in my dictionary,” said Pakao, who used the comedy to supplement her husband’s ongoing cultural-immersion lessons. “If you learn from the people on TV, it’s going to be the same as when you speak in public.”

Regional dialects aside, she may have a point. And with some coaching success attributed to Romano, she can now add English to the list of languages where she is proficient, which already includes Burmese and Mon.

Pakao’s diligence to learn should not surprise those who know her well given her family’s struggles during Burma’s longstanding political instability. Her father was a rice paddy farmer who kept his wife and seven children safe during frequent military attacks and bombings by placing them in a manmade hole in the family’s home. Seeking greater opportunities, the family relocated to the city, where her father earned a mere $3 a day as a driver. His sacrifices enabled Pakao and her siblings to complete high school and for her to start college in 2000, she said.

That same year she met her future husband, Michael, married him in 2001 and joined him in the United States the following year.

Michael, a Burmese political refugee already living in Fort Wayne, met Pakao while visiting friends in Thailand.

Her admiration for him remains just as strong 11 years later. As justification, she cites her husband’s frequent ties as a volunteer translator for native Burmese—individuals who are rebuilding their lives in America, as he assists them in seeking jobs, opening bank accounts, navigating health care and so forth.

Michael’s example of selflessness has become Pakao’s mantra, too.

During her return to college at Ivy Tech–Northeast, which she says Michael inspired, she took time to accompany numerous Burmese women and children on their medical visits to serve as a translator, and she volunteered with the American Red Cross of Northeast Indiana’s MIX program to provide free translation and referral services to non-native English speakers. “Before you go to sleep, ask yourself, ‘What have you done today to help others?’ When you can say you’ve done a lot, you will sleep very well,” Pakao said.

These experiences have shaped her academic and career ambitions, with Pakao having just completed an associate degree in Medical Assisting and achieving cum laude recognition.

She has developed her own fan base along the way. “I would have to say that Pakao has been, in my 22 years of teaching, one of my favorite students,” said Deeann Knox, assistant professor in the Medical Assisting Program. “She took every experience and made the very most of it.”

Pakao will likely tap this same enthusiasm as she exercises her medical knowledge and practices her multilingual language skills in diverse health care settings. And if Pakao ever finds herself at a loss for words, she may have the perfect two-word alibi: Ray Romano.

See Pakao's story on YouTube

Ivy Tech's Northeast alumna Pakao Mon practices a blood draw on Patty Ley, program chair of Medical Assisting

Pakao receives her diploma during the Spring 2012 Commencement ceremony