Heshani Samarakoon — A Future in Archaeology

THE MASTERCARD SCHOLAR STORIES SERIES

In October 2017, Educate Lanka Foundation joined hands with Mastercard to empower 250 young women of Sri Lanka through enhanced access to education and employment opportunities during the first year of their exclusive partnership. The story of Heshani is part of the Mastercard Scholar Stories Series launched to celebrate the journeys of Educate Lanka Scholars supported by Mastercard.

Family and Economic Background

Heshani comes from a single-parent family as her father passed away in a road accident when she was only 6 years old. Her mother has been the sole breadwinner of the family since then by doing manual labor and earning a meager Rs. 8,000 (~USD 55) per month. Heshani has one brother who is not well and is therefore unable to contribute to the family’s income. As her family falls under extreme poverty, they receive a monthly public relief grant of Rs. 500 (~USD 3) in the form of food stamps from the Sri Lanka Samurdhi Authority. Despite such economic barriers, Heshani studied with great determination at Dodamwala Maha Vidyalaya, Muruthalawa in Kandy district and performed well at the G.C.E. Ordinary Level examination in 2009. She also excelled at many extracurricular and after school activities including athletics, Girl Scouting, and student services.

In Sri Lanka, achieving good results at this 11th grade cut-off examination enables students like Heshani to pursue their Advanced Level (post-secondary) studies at a more privileged school. Unfortunately, Heshani, like most other students in her shoes, opted out of this unique opportunity as her family was unable to cover additional costs such as transportation expenses and boarding fees associated with attending a better school away from home. Instead, she resorted to continuing her secondary education at the same school and faced the Advanced Level examination in 2012, ranking 179th in the entire Kandy district. It is also noteworthy that, unlike most students, Heshani did not have the luxury of attending private tuition classes for these two extremely competitive national examinations. The demand for and dependency on private tutoring within Sri Lanka’s free education system has become more of a necessity and a societal challenge as a result of a combination of factors including the lack of teachers, the overall decline in quality of teaching in schools, and the intense competition to get into better secondary schools and state universities. Without the means to spend on such supplements, it was through her sheer perseverance that Heshani gained admission to one of the few state universities of Sri Lanka, an opportunity received by only 9% of those who sit for the cut-off examination (Advanced Level) at grade 13.

Worsened Economic Struggles as an Undergraduate

While Heshani grabbed this rare and important opportunity with both hands, she was soon hit with economic realities of a student in higher education in Sri Lanka. Even though Sri Lanka has recognized the Right to Education and thereby offers a universal education throughout primary, secondary and tertiary education, the need for increased private household spending on education, especially on educational essentials and supplements, has led to greater stratification across socioeconomic classes. Given her family circumstances, Heshani was directly affected by this reality. She soon found it difficult to provide for even basic needs such as food, accommodation, and transportation that came with living away from home as well as additional educational costs as a university student such as printing and photocopying costs and traveling expenses during field visits. It was at this point amid such circumstances that Heshani was introduced to Educate Lanka and became an Educate Lanka Scholar in 2015 when she was a second year undergraduate student.

Fascination with Archaeology

Heshani comes from Pilimathalawa, a suburb of the city of Kandy, which is 104 km away from Colombo. This village is famous for traditional brassware, two ancient Buddhist temples — Gadaladeniya and Lankatilaka — and Embekka Devalaya which is well known for its wood carvings. Coming from a village with such rich history and ancient sites that date back to the 14th century, it is no surprise that Heshani chose to follow a Bachelor of Arts special degree at the Department of Archaeology of the University of Kelaniya. From her childhood, Heshani was fascinated with our country’s past and selected History as one of her main subjects for the G.C.E. Advanced Level examination in 2012. It is this exposure that led her to dream of becoming an Archaeologist— a very unique and bold career choice driven purely by passion in a modern Sri Lankan society that prioritizes careers and professions mainly in the STEM fields.

Heshani at an excavation site at Demala Maha Seya, Polonnaruwa with her classmates in 2015

2016 marked an important milestone for Heshani as she was part of an excavation carried out by the University of Kelaniya that discovered the remnants of a 3,000 year old prehistoric cemetery at Dewalapola, Minuwangoda. She was thrilled to have been a part of this important discovery and to gain such practical knowledge while still a student. Her dream is to reach the highest point in the field of Archaeology and to unearth the hidden history of our country, to preserve the cultural heritage that continues to be damaged and diminished little by little, and overall to be a worthy and useful citizen. This desire to give back to the society and country is an important value that we look to see in every Educate Lanka Scholar.

“I believe the study of human history remains important and should not be banned. We should ensure that any archaeological studies are conducted with sensitivity and respect. Reburying relics, in my view, does not help anyone go anywhere.” — Richard Leakey

Reaping the Returns of Education

Heshani successfully completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Archaeology in January 2018 with an impressive Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.88. Her final year dissertation topic was one that is close to her heart as she chose to conduct research on her own village Pilimathalawa and the history and technology of producing brassware. Heshani is now looking forward to embarking on a much-anticipated career in archaeology. She hopes to start working at a site and to eventually realize her dream of becoming an Archaeologist. She has not yet given much thought to pursuing postgraduate studies as she is anxious to start working as soon as she can so that she could relieve her mother from work and take the responsibility as the primary caretaker for both her mother and brother. Heshani is only a few paychecks away from lifting herself and her family out of the vicious cycle of poverty through the investment she made in education. Heshani’s story is an inspiration to everyone, and we are glad that we could play a small part in her journey by supporting Heshani through her university education, an important milestone for her to reach her dreams.

Heshani is one of the over 1,200 deserving students of whom we have unlocked the full potential through education, and that’s why we are thrilled to have taken this significant step in Sri Lanka by introducing a unique social-private partnership with Mastercard towards our vision of making opportunities universal for everyone. With the backing of a global pioneer like Mastercard, we are excited to amplify our impact in creating an inclusive workforce and an equitable society that would drive Sri Lanka towards its socioeconomic advancement and its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Please watch the following brief video for the experience of more Scholars like Heshani on the impact of the unique collaboration between Educate Lanka and Mastercard:

Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.

You could also read previous stories under the Mastercard Scholar Stories Series on this link. To learn more about Educate Lanka’s mission and to invest directly in the education of an Educate Lanka Scholar, please visit www.educatelanka.org.