Nathiyarasi Sivagnanam — Resilience in the Face of War and Adversity
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 Nathiyarasi is part of the Mastercard Scholar Stories Series launched to celebrate the journeys of Educate Lanka Scholars supported by Mastercard.
A family affected by war
Nathiyarasi is from a village called Katkulam in Vavuniya, a town in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, which was at the heart of the three-decade-long insurgency and war that ended in 2009. Her life changed drastically at the age of one when her father passed away during this period of conflict. Since then, her mother has been the sole breadwinner of the family by laboring in odd jobs, agricultural work, and rearing cattle to provide for Nathiyarasi and her two brothers. Their monthly household income was a meager SLR 2,000 (~USD 12), falling well below the extreme poverty line.
“We will be the future leaders tomorrow… If we turn the barriers of our life into the steps to our success, we can succeed in life. We should live happily even during our hard times.”
Hopes for a better future through education
Nathiyarasi’s mother always dreamed that her children would make a better future for themselves through education. Nathiyarasi’s elder brother entered the Medical Faculty of the University of Jaffna and her second brother entered the CINEC Maritime Campus in Jaffna. Nathiyarasi too showed promise from an early age. She sat for the Grade 5 Scholarship examination from Kidachchuri Karuveppankulam School, Vavuniya and scored 118 out of 200. Passing this examination gave her the opportunity of pursuing her studies further at Puthukulam Maha Vidyalayam, Vavuniya, a school ranking higher up in the Sri Lankan school system. This is the first cut-off examination in the country’s education system that offers students with the opportunity of entering better schools. In 2012, Nathiyarasi faced the next cut-off examination — the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) — which qualifies students for their higher-secondary studies. Having successfully passed this examination, Nathiyarasi qualified to pursue her Advanced Level studies (Grades 12–13) in the Arts stream and decided to study Tamil, Geography and Hindu Civilization.
Barriers to accessing an equal education
Even though Nathiyarasi was determined to follow in her brothers’ footsteps, she realized that her mother was finding it increasingly difficult to support the education of three children with her meager income. It was under these circumstances during her final school year, in 2014, that Nathiyarasi reached out to Educate Lanka for support with her education as she was preparing for the highly competitive Advanced Level examination.
Despite its universal education system, Sri Lanka is faced with the challenge of exclusion and non-participation in education of its children mainly due to socioeconomic reasons. As the 2015 UNICEF Country Report points out, family poverty has become the primary demand-side barrier and bottleneck to education for Sri Lanka’s children and youth. This is also the primary reason for the Educate Lanka Scholarship Program to exist — to relieve such families from the additional burden of out-of-pocket educational expenses.
With the support of Educate Lanka’s micro-scholarship, Nathiyarasi’s family was able to cover the “opportunity cost” of her education and pay for her extra classes, books, stationery, uniforms, and transportation. Offering students the same educational opportunities as other students is a primary purpose of the Educate Lanka Scholarship. In addition to academics, Nathiyarasi took great interest in extracurricular activities as a member of the school debating team and took part in inter-school debate competitions. In 2015, she sat for the highly competitive Advanced Level examination. Nathiyarasi did not want to waste time while waiting for her exam results and decided to improve her skills by attending Sinhala and English language classes as well as a computer course during this period.
Educational success clouded by a new tragedy
When she got her exam results, Nathiyarasi was elated to find out that she not only passed all three subjects with “Distinction” and “Very Good” passes but ranked 67th in the Vavuniya District and also qualified for admission to a state university in Sri Lanka for her post-secondary studies. Only about 10% of those who sit for this final cut-off examination receive this opportunity. This was a remarkable achievement for a girl who had faced great adversity throughout her life. As such, in early 2017, Nathiyarasi made her mother’s dream come true by entering the Faculty of Arts of the University of Jaffna. She enrolled in Media Studies and Psychology courses during her first year in order to fulfill her ambition of becoming a journalist in the television and entertainment fields. She got involved in sports by joining the university hockey team, and won against the University of Peradeniya at the Inter-university Championship. She feels more independent and has improved her flexibility as a university student.
However, in August of the same year, a new tragedy struck her life, dimming the light of her achievements. Nathiyarasi’s mother also passed away unexpectedly. Losing her pillar of strength was a great blow to Nathiyarasi. Her mother was her role model, an unsung hero. She now lives with her grandparents.
Expressing loss and hope through verse
Writing poetry is one of Nathiyarasi’s hobbies and she uses it as a means of expressing her emotions of loss and hope for the future. This expressive nature is clearly captured in the following two verses she shared as part of her semi-annual scholar feedback to Educate Lanka:
At the mere age of 20, Nathiyarasi has already faced some of the harshest challenges and realities that life has to offer. But she is determined to better her circumstances through education — the greatest equalizer and opportunity she could receive to breakaway from the vicious cycle of poverty. However, without the necessary guidance and support, even such persevering students have no choice but to give up on education and look for immediate means of survival as a result of socioeconomic drawbacks. It is with deserving cases such as Nathiyarasi 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 Nathiyarasi 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.