Public Service

Behind this day porter’s smile is a fighter’s spirit

Massey winner Khin Su Su Kyi, a Myanmar refugee, models hard work and diligence.

Khin Su Su Kyi posing in front of building exterior.
Khin Su Su Kyi, a Myanmar refugee, keeps Marsico Hall spotless in her work as a day porter. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The lobby of the 10-story Marsico Hall is spotless — like always. But when day porter Khin Su Su Kyi peers through the building’s tall glass windows, she notices students sitting outside at green, pollen-dusted tables.

Kyi springs into action.

Mask on, gloves on, spray bottle in hand, Kyi zips from table to table, meticulously scrubbing each surface. This outdoor area doesn’t fall under her housekeeping domain. She’s not responsible for cleaning it, but that won’t stop her.

“I do it because I want to help people,” said Kyi, smiling, on this late April morning.

Going the extra mile is nothing new for the 17-year UNC-Chapel Hill day porter, who earned a 2024 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award for her tireless work ethic, attention to detail and positive attitude.

Kyi, whom most people call by her middle name Su Su, received 28 nominations for the Massey award, with nominators writing glowingly about an “unsung hero” who has kept Marsico Hall in pristine shape since it opened in 2014. One nominator wrote that Kyi “is one of the most diligent and hard-working employees I have met in all my 37 years” at Carolina.

Kyi’s constant smile and beaming pride become more remarkable when considering the harrowing path she took to the United States. She arrived in America on Nov. 30, 2004, fleeing war-torn Myanmar.

“I love my country, but the problems are because of the military government,” said Kyi, who has gradually learned English over the last two decades. “No freedom of democracy, no freedom of speech, no freedom of expression, no justice. It just really isn’t free.”

Behind Kyi’s smaller stature is an unyielding spirit. She’s a fighter. A survivor.

When Kyi was 3 years old, her lawyer father died in prison – jailed for speaking out against the military regime. Kyi’s mother warned all seven of her children not to tread down that same path, to stay away from political activism.

Kyi didn’t listen. She spoke out. And when she was in her early 20s, Kyi was jailed for six months, routinely kicked and beaten. Desperate, her mother sold their childhood home to raise the funds to bail her out of prison, then she implored Kyi to flee the country.

The first stop was a refugee camp in Thailand, where Kyi lost most of her friends and former classmates to malaria. There, Kyi met a man she thought she could trust. Though he helped her reach America, he also abused her and ultimately left their marriage. Kyi had to raise three daughters by herself in a new country.

“It’s not easy for me to live life with three daughters,” Kyi said, tears welling in her eyes. “But I am strong.”

Through her work at Carolina – and at times multiple other jobs – Kyi has supported all three of her daughters, and she gushes with pride as she talks about them now. Her oldest graduated college and is working in Raleigh, the middle daughter is on track to graduate from business school, and her youngest is taking honors and Advanced Placement courses in 10th grade.

In the same way she has modeled work ethic and diligence to every employee and student who steps into Marsico Hall, Kyi has shown her daughters the value of hard work and how important it is to hold one’s head high.

“Everything is not perfect in your life,” Kyi said she always tells her daughters. “But never forget how your mom is strong for you. Always think about that. Always try to do like me.”

This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the 2024 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Look for new recipient profiles to come or find others you may have missed.