Nay Yan Oo, 28, of Myanmar, is working on getting his master’s degree in political science at Northern Illinois University. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune / July 23, 2014)

In its messy, uncertain evolution toward democracy, Myanmar is reconstructing a crippled university system.

That's where the remodeled garage in DeKalb comes into play, in a vital way.

The building, under the shade of an oak tree on Northern Illinois University's campus 8,000 miles from Yangon, houses the only Center for Burma Studies in the U.S.

In a little-known, crucial example of the Chicago region's global reach, the center and several departments at NIU are leading the rehabilitation of Myanmar's universities, sending administrators and faculty to the strategically located country about the size of Texas.

Over the last 18 months, eight faculty members from NIU — some making multiple trips — have delivered water-testing equipment, helped create international offices on campuses in Myanmar, trained faculty, taught students and even donated books.

"They were just craving knowledge and craving anything that I could give to them," said geology professor Melissa Lenczewski, who returned to DeKalb in June after a working visit in Myanmar, previously known as Burma.

Lenczewski led lectures on environmental science, delivered donated equipment and trained science instructors on how to use it.

When she donated a stack of books, the faculty held a formal ceremony. Then instructors started arguing over who would use them first.

"You walk away with this tremendous sense of, 'I want to help these people,'" added Lenczewski, director of NIU's Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy. "What can I do? If I can do anything for them right now, I would do it for them."

English department chair Amy Levin, who taught workshops and worked with faculty and students on her 2013 visit, said it was life-changing.

Their hunger for books was astonishing, she said, and she gained new insights from students' interpretations of the writings she taught.

"It was very invigorating," Levin said. "I think it was really good for my teaching."

NIU's path to becoming a leading institution in the Burmese culture began in 1963, when the university started training Peace Corps volunteers for service in Malaysia. That effort led to the creation of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at NIU the same year.

The Center for Burma Studies came into existence in 1986 through the efforts of professor Richard Cooler, who came to NIU in 1970. He first visited Burma in the early 1970s, then joined the Burma Studies Group, a fragmented but serious association of scholars.

Over the years, the researchers published papers and acquired rare books, maps, artwork and other items from and about the nation. In the early 1980s, members decided they needed a central office and held a competition.

NIU's bid, written by Cooler, beat entries submitted by the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.

Key factors in bringing the nascent center to DeKalb were the existence of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies on NIU's campus, the university's promise to display Burmese art on campus at all times and its commitment to devote a director and secretary to the enterprise, Cooler said.

The former garage, attached to a white building that serves as the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, is the Burma center's third site. Its collection, cared for in a number of campus buildings, includes publications, rare books, ancient and modern maps, art, manuscripts and music about Myanmar. Catherine Raymond, an associate professor of art history working in Myanmar and Southeast Asia this month, is the current director.

Cooler, 71, was the center's director until his retirement in 2002. He remains active there, visiting Myanmar yearly as an educator for a scholarly tour company.

"I love Burma because it is a wonderfully unique window on the past," he said "It's one of the few places where there isn't a thick veneer of modernity on top of everything."