Anishka Yerabothu is a rising senior at St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts, USA. In June 2019, she volunteered with the Educate Lanka Foundation for three weeks. Through this blog post, Anishka describes her latest journey as a global citizen and shares her learnings, new knowledge gained, challenges faced, and the unique takeaways from her experience in Sri Lanka.
This summer, I traveled to Kandy, Sri Lanka for three weeks to volunteer with the Educate Lanka Foundation. I first came across Educate Lanka when I began researching global citizenship opportunities through my high school — St. Mark’s School — last fall. The opportunity with Educate Lanka immediately appealed to me and my parents because my great-grandparents lived in Sri Lanka for 40 years, leaving before the civil war that ravaged the country broke out in 1983. They carried with them their love for the country, the people, and the cuisine, and they shared that love with the entire family. My grandmother still prepares traditional Sri Lankan dishes we enjoy at home.
As part of my research into the opportunity with Educate Lanka, my family and I watched the TEDx Talk of Educate Lanka’s founder — Manjula Dissanayake; his message about creating universal opportunities resonated with my family. After conversations with Dr. Laura Appell-Warren, the Director of Global Citizenship at St. Mark’s, and Mr. Dissanayake about volunteering with Educate Lanka, we finalized the plan for my travel in June. We bought a plane ticket and arrangements for my stay in Sri Lanka were made in coordination with Educate Lanka staff.
On the morning of April 21, 2019, however, we woke to the shocking news of the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings at Sri Lankan churches and hotels.
Hundreds of men, women, and children died tragically. In the aftermath, a state of emergency was imposed, racial tensions flared, heightened security controls were put in place, and the US State Department issued a travel advisory, urging Americans to reconsider all non-essential travel.
Anxious about the volatility and tensions in the aftermath, my mom and Mr. Dissanayake discussed the situation extensively. After a lot of deliberation, confident in the plan and measures they developed to ensure my safety and comfort, and recognizing that I had not lost my enthusiasm for working with Educate Lanka despite the terrible events, it was decided that I could proceed with my plan to volunteer. However, with heightened security in Colombo and increased immigration checks at the airport, my mom decided to accompany me to Kandy.
On June 13, 2019, my mother, younger brother, and I left for Sri Lanka, full of excitement to be visiting the country for the first time. As our plane descended, I had a bird’s-eye view of a lush, green island surrounded by sparkling blue ocean water. I was awed by the beauty of the country and thankful that I had remained firm in my commitment to visiting Sri Lanka.
We were received at the airport by two Educate Lanka staff members, Cha and Naresh. We left right away for Kandy, which was a four-hour car ride away. My younger brother watched wide-eyed as we passed several military personnel and checkpoints on the road. We arrived at my homestay in Kandy, after about 30 hours of travel, exhausted but happy to have arrived at our destination. Reeves Garden Homestay was run by Shifaya Maraikar, whom I later affectionately called Shifaya Aunty.
I went to the Educate Lanka offices on Monday morning and enjoyed meeting the rest of the team members, Dhanu, Seevali, and Chan. Given that things were relatively peaceful in Kandy, and confident that the Educate Lanka team had made all the necessary arrangements to keep me safe and comfortable, my mom and brother left for India later that week. The next few weeks would be mine — time to discover Sri Lanka and dive into Educate Lanka’s work.
The Educate Lanka Foundation’s mission is to
“democratize learning opportunities for all” by “empower[ing] economically disadvantaged children and youth by enhancing their access to education, mentoring, and employment opportunities.”
Although public education in Sri Lanka is free, students living under marginalized circumstances or in rural parts of the country are not able to afford the out-of-pocket costs associated with attending school — such as transportation, books, technology, and private tutoring. Educate Lanka provides students accepted into its scholarship program with the financing needed to ensure uninterrupted access to schooling and related learning opportunities.
Educate Lanka goes beyond simply providing students with long-term scholarships. Another important program it runs is its Skills Development Program. These workshops are incredibly valuable to Sri Lankan students; they provide opportunities to learn and acquire important skills and competencies that are not taught in school, helping students bridge the skills and learning gap — one of the critical issues plaguing Sri Lanka’s education system. While I was in Sri Lanka, I was thrilled to be assigned the task of designing and conducting a skills development workshop as part of my core volunteer requirements. Drawing on my background in Carnatic music and Kathak (Indian classical dance), I created a workshop that introduced Indian classical music and dance to 15- and 16-year-old girls at Mowbray College, Kandy as a means of appreciating diversity, building confidence, and enhancing self-expression. I was impressed and deeply moved by the girls’ enthusiasm and curiosity throughout the workshop.
In addition to designing and delivering the skills development workshop, I had the opportunity to go on field visits to distribute scholarships to Educate Lanka scholars in the rural parts of Sri Lanka. We first went to Puthukulam, a predominantly Hindu and Tamil-speaking village in the Northern Province, which was directly affected by the civil war. I met six Educate Lanka scholars there, all of whom were studying at different universities and planning to pursue careers in fields such as medicine, law, and academia.
We also visited a Sinhala school in Medawachchiya, which is in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. I met four Educate Lanka scholars here. Although very shy and soft-spoken, they were clearly determined to succeed. All the scholars I met in Medawachchiya were in their Advanced Level of the General Certificate of Education, often abbreviated to A-levels. Charuka and Rashmika want to become primary school teachers, Sewmini wants to be a drama teacher, and Shashikala wants to pursue political science. I think Shashikala knew more about the United States Government than I did! I loved getting to meet each Educate Lanka scholar and learn a little bit about their family, interests, and ambitions.
I also had the unique opportunity to visit students’ families in their homes. One of the families we visited was Kapilan’s. Kapilan lives in Puthukulam and is in his second year at Eastern University in Chenkalady. As soon as we arrived at his home, his aunt immediately embraced us all with hugs despite having never met me before. Their home consisted of three very small rooms and a kitchen. Kapilan and his family were forced to flee their home around the time of the Sri Lankan civil war. When they returned, their home had been destroyed. He now lives with his sister and two aunts. One of Kapilan’s aunts always had a smile on her face — no matter what she was talking about or who she was talking to. The grace and positivity with which she conducted herself in the face of her circumstances were remarkable. I found her optimism astounding.
In Sri Lanka, all students must take the A-level exam to gain entry into university. These exams are extremely difficult, and on average, only students with scores in the top 10% nationally receive the opportunity to attend Sri Lanka’s public universities. The work Educate Lanka is doing to help such hard-working, driven students is invaluable. Educate Lanka ensures that no student amongst the top 10% of scorers is unable to attend university due to socioeconomic constraints. The Educate Lanka Foundation strives to make education a universal opportunity.
Traveling to Sri Lanka this summer was a special and enlightening experience. I was most struck by how positive and brave each Educate Lanka scholar was despite their challenging realities. Far from being discouraged, these scholars are working extremely hard to complete educations that will allow them to transcend their and their families’ circumstances. They are bright, hard-working, hopeful, and optimistic young adults. They truly deserve all the support they receive and more.
I am back in the United States now. As I reflect upon my time in Sri Lanka, I have realized something important:
I am a Hindu girl, being educated at a Christian Episcopal school, who enjoyed the home and hospitality of a Muslim host, visited and prayed at a Buddhist temple, and had rich, engaging interactions with Sinhalese and Tamil students.
I cherish these experiences in a country that is being torn along religious and ethnic lines. I hope universal access to education and opportunities will blur ethnic and religious lines of difference in the future. This summer, I saw firsthand how Educate Lanka’s work is so critical to realizing this, and I am thrilled to have been a small part of it.
I cherished the opportunity to meet each Educate Lanka scholar. I also enjoyed working with Educate Lanka staff members Seevali, Cha, Dhanu, Chan, and Naresh. I miss my desk at the office with a view of the beautiful Kandy mountains and hope to return soon.
Last fall, I received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Award, which has allowed me to have an immersive learning experience in Kathak this past year.
On September 21, 2019, I will be showcasing my learning through a solo dance performance. It will also be a benefit recital to raise awareness and support for Educate Lanka’s work.
When I return to school in September, my goal is to start an Educate Lanka chapter at St. Mark’s. I would like to see the school come together to further support and contribute to Educate Lanka’s mission. My hope is that going forward, St. Mark’s students will be able to travel to Sri Lanka each summer to volunteer with Educate Lanka, contributing to and learning from their amazing work. I believe that it will be an enriching experience for other St. Markers, as it was for me, and that, together, we will take another step toward creating an empathetic global community.