Lelani Kandegamage — Turning Every Adversity into Opportunity

Educate Lanka
Oct 12, 2018 · 7 min read

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 Lelani is part of the Mastercard Scholar Stories Series launched to celebrate the journeys of Educate Lanka Scholars supported by Mastercard.

Facing Adversity at a Young Age

Lelani is from the village of Napana in Gunnepana, Kandy in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Her parents separated when she was in Grade 5. Lelani and her two younger sisters were then looked after by their mother who did not have a permanent job. This break-up of the family was a great blow to young Lelani, both economically and psychologically. Amidst such emotional stress and with her mother falling sick at the time, Lelani managed to pass the highly competitive Grade 5 scholarship examination that year. Only 15 students passed from her school, Paathadumbara Maha Vidyalaya. She emotionally recalls how all the other parents bought gifts and arranged parties to celebrate the success of their children, but when she called her father to tell him that she passed and to ask for her gift, her call was not answered.

Pushing Forward Against all Odds

Lelani did not lose hope. By passing the Grade 5 scholarship examination, she got the opportunity of entering Hemamali Girls’ College, Kandy, a school ranking higher in the Sri Lankan school system. This 5th grade exam is the first cut-off examination in Sri Lanka that offers students like Lelani the chance to better their circumstances through academic excellence. She made the most of getting admittance to this “town school” and took part in many extra-curricular activities to broaden her horizon: she was a Junior Prefect, a Girl Guide, a member of the Chess Team, the English Literary Association, and the Information Technology Committee.

In 2010, Lelani sat for the second cut-off examination in the Sri Lankan education system — the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level). At this milestone, too, Lelani proved herself with hard-work and determination and gained entrance to Girls’ High School Kandy one of the foremost girls’ schools in the Kandy District, with far better quality of teaching and facilities for learning. However, entering a “better” school meant an increase in the educational cost. It is through sheer determination that Lelani faced all these challenges:

“My mother did not have enough money even to sew my uniform, to buy the badges and the admission fee of my new school, as she didn’t have a permanent job. So, my mother, me and my sisters helped one of our neighbors to bring bricks to his house within three days and earned some money for me.”

Taking her Destiny into her Own Hands

In 2013, Lelani sat for the General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level), the most important milestone in the Sri Lankan education system as this examination qualifies students to enter public universities in Sri Lanka. She passed the examination with one “A” and two “B” passes. However, she was not satisfied with this result. She realized that the reason for her under-performance was that she was unable to attend extra tuition classes for this highly competitive national examination. Even though she was now attending a school ranked Type 1AB, the highest level in the Sri Lankan school system, she was not exempt of facing issues prevalent throughout the overall education system, such as the lack of teachers, the overall decline in quality of teaching in schools, and the intense competition to get into state universities. It is because of such reasons that 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. Lelani accepted her financial shortcomings, and instead of lamenting over her misfortunes, she found a solution to the problem:

“I thought not to let money be the barrier of my education. So, I applied for a job as soon as possible to earn money for tuition classes. I could find a little job in a catering service and I had to clean tablecloths, chair covers, serviettes, iron them and arrange orders. After five months I returned to my studies with both money and many experiences about life.”

Having earned sufficient funds to attend extra tuition classes, Lelani faced the examination for the second time in 2014 with even greater determination and passed with flying colors! She passed with three “A” passes this time, a feat achieved only by 2.36% of the candidates who sat for the exam that year from the whole country. Surpassing this achievement was the fact that she had ranked 19th in the entire Kandy District. This was a great victory for a girl coming from her socioeconomic background.

Continuing with Higher Studies to reach her Dream

“My goal is to be a Corporate Accountant and to start up my own business on my own concept.”

In 2015, Lelani reached out to the Educate Lanka Foundation, as she knew that self-funding her higher studies would not be as easy as it had been to earn for her high school education. The expenses would be far greater as she would be living over 120 km away from home. Looking at Lelani’s track record and her perseverance to reach her goals, we could not have chosen a more worthy investment as Lelani manifests Educate Lanka’s mission of producing “driven leaders who are committed to personal and professional advancement while creating positive changes in their communities.”

Lelani did not want to waste any time while awaiting university entrance, and got registered at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka which is an important step towards reaching her dream of becoming a Corporate Accountant. In 2016, Lelani entered the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Currently she is a Business Major with an emphasis in Finance. However, Lelani felt that she’s in need to gain access and exposure to certain skills and guidance that are generally lacking in the Sri Lankan education system. It is for this specific reason we introduced and initiated Educate Lanka Skills Development Program and Mentorship Program as a complement to the Scholarship Program.

Preparing for the Future through Educate Lanka Skills Development Sessions

Lelani is one of the Educate Lanka Scholars who has participated in the most number of Skills Development sessions over the past two years since program inception. Her enthusiasm in taking part in these sessions is captured in the following photographs:

Lelani at a Leadership Skills Development session conducted by High Five Consultancy and Training
Lelani sharing a moment with her trainer at a Skills Development session on Everyday English at the American Corner, Kandy
Lelani receiving her certificate of participation from Educate Lanka Country Coordinator, Dhanusha Amarasinghe, at the Professional Skills Development session conducted by the National Institute of Business Management, Kandy

Seeking Extra Guidance by Joining the Educate Lanka Mentorship Program

I think that mentoring is such a critical part of the role I can play in my position. I see how little bits of exposure and big bits of exposure really change my girls significantly, and I want that for more girls around the country and the world. — Michelle Obama

The Educate Lanka Mentorship Program was launched in August 2016 with the backing of the MasterCard Foundation. This pilot program was partnered by Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lelani was among the first mentees to join this endeavor. Taking into consideration her unparalleled vision and focus, Lelani was chosen to speak at this inaugural occasion to share her unique story as an Educate Lanka Scholar.

Lelani addressing the gathering at the launch of the Educate Lanka Mentorship Program at Deutsche Bank Colombo in August 2016
Lelani with her mentor, Natasha Hay, Vice President of Deutsche Bank, at the launch of the Educate Lanka Mentorship Program in August 2016

“With the Educate Lanka Mentorship Program, we can get exposure to many things to increase our values. This will exactly help to fill our skills gap and is also useful for our day-to-day life. My mentor helps me a lot to build up my confidence to face the cultural conflict without being alienated in the university. She and I discussed a lot on how to adapt to the university culture properly, and how to survive in the corporate world. She is a valuable person on whom I can count at every point.”

Lelani sharing her experience as a Mentee of the Educate Lanka Mentorship Program with her fellow Educate Lanka Scholars

Life has thrown many obstacles in Lelani’s path from her childhood, but she has managed to leap over these hurdles by turning every adversity she faced into opportunity. She has a spirit of never giving up. There are many students like Lelani who do not have access to the such opportunities. It is with ambitious and hardworking students like Lelani in mind that Educate Lanka took this significant step in Sri Lanka by introducing a unique social-private partnership towards our vision of making opportunities universal for everyone. With the backing of a global pioneer like Mastercard, we are excited to create 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 Lelani 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.

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Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. We’re on a mission to address it by making opportunities universal for all through #education. | educatelanka.org