Lanka Corps - building bridges of understandingOctober 13, 2012, 3:44 pm
By Randima Attygalle
The labours of The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka since its establishment in 1954 as a partner in Sri Lanka’s dynamic social fabric and its development process have been significant. Since the end of the armed conflict, the Foundation has been contributing its expertise towards rebuilding the nation. As part of this effort, it launched LankaCorps (www.lankacorps.org) in July this year to provide an opportunity for young professionals of Sri Lankan origin in the North American diaspora to engage in post-war development and enhance their understanding of contemporary Sri Lanka. The young professionals or Fellows are placed for six months with host organizations identified by The Asia Foundation in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. LankaCorps is an ideal platform for them to reap first-hand, experience of this dynamic, multi-ethnic country.
Nilan Fernando, Country Representative of The Asia Foundation, perceives this ambitious venture as an opportunity for Fellows to grow personally and professionally while making a unique and lasting connection with their country of origin. "Whether it’s the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or other countries, youngsters of Sri Lankan origin are exposed to a Sri Lankan subculture and they grow up with a sense of association with the country," said Fernando recalling his own upbringing in the US. Fernando aspired to create an opportunity for young professionals to work in Sri Lanka early in their careers, before family and career paths take them in other directions. He conceived of LankaCorps due to the absence of a structured mechanism which gives opportunity to young Lankan professionals domiciled in the US and Canada with a zest for exploring the country of their origin.
An enriching experience
The five young professionals selected for the maiden LankaCorps programme were assessed on the strength of their personal statements, their passion for making a contribution to Sri Lanka, and their academic credentials and work experience. Sahani Chandraratna, Sivashankar Krishnakumar, Seshma Kumararatne and Ann Selvadurai from the US and Sabina Martyn from Canada, were thus selected for the inaugural LankaCorps programme. The Asia Foundation is rendering in-country advisory and logistical support for the Fellows during their six-month internships. The fellowship also provides roundtrip airfare, in-country expenses, language lessons, and health insurance.
Fernando was struck by the potential long-term benefits of these kinds of experiential learning programmes when he managed the ‘Luce Scholars’ programme for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia and Malaysia before he took up his posting in Sri Lanka. Supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and managed by The Asia Foundation since 1974, Fernando said "this programme has enabled potential leaders in America, in their 20s, to become exposed to Asian history, society, and culture by allowing them to live and work in various Asian countries for one year. Many Luce Scholars have maintained their interest in Asia throughout their careers and today are high flyers in academia, government and the private sector. Similarly, Fernando aspires for LankaCorps Fellows to have their personal and professional lives enriched by the experience and stay involved with Sri Lanka long after their Fellowships end. "It’s hard to predict what they will do in the future, but because of the type of Fellows we’ve selected, I’m confident it will pay long-term dividends."
Sharing his views on the possible expansion of the programme to other countries, Fernando said in conclusion, "LankaCorps has already stirred lot of interest among diaspora youth through word of mouth and social media. There is huge potential for expanding the programme to other countries such as Australia and the UK."
Opening new vistas
For Sivashankar Krishnakumar, an electrical engineer from California who is placed with the Foundation of Goodness, organizing the Murali Harmony Cup was a stimulating experience, opening vistas hitherto unexplored. Born in Jaffna, Sivashankar left for the US with his family as a young boy and graduated from the University of California at Riverside. Prior to his involvement in LankaCorps, his only direct exposure to Sri Lanka was during the ceasefire. "Today I see a totally different nation devoid of war,"said Sivashankar whose extensive travels in many parts of the island including Seenigama, Trincomalee, Mankulam, Vavuniya and Jaffna, has widened his horizons. "I learnt many things about Sri Lanka which I would have never have through a text book or parental in-put." Organizing the Murali Cup was an enthralling experience that gave him an opportunity to be part of the North-South reconciliation process. "LankaCorps has given me a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience this wonderful country personally and professionally. The impact it has on me is so profound, so much so I intend to return to Sri Lanka to help develop the country."
Commending Sivashankar’s contribution to the Foundation of Goodness, Founder and Chief Trustee, Kushil Gunasekera said, "Shankar’s placement was very timely considering our on-going humanitarian work in the North. He is to be admired for wanting to help in a concrete, hands-on way. At his age, very few will come back for six months, giving up a lucrative IT job to serve his country, which to me is a real eye opener for those who are watching things happen as opposed to Shankar who is making things happen!" The Murali Cup matches were held at five venues in the North similar to a mini cricket world cup for school boys. Gunasekera said, "I cannot adequately describe the role he performed to make this historic event a great success. His passion to work at the grassroots level and his coordination of the logistics were outstanding."
Quite different to her previous short visits to the country as a tourist, LankaCorps has enabled Sabina Martyn, from Canada, to immerse herself in day-to-day life in Sri Lanka, through work and in her leisure time. Sabina, a water engineer by profession and graduate of the University of Guelph, had relied mainly on the media and her parents’ stories and memories to shape her ideas of Sri Lanka. "LankaCorps has challenged me to develop my own perspectives and seek my own experiences. I have also been able to explore my heritage. I visited Jaffna, which I had not been able to do in past visits because of the war. It was a surreal experience to walk the same streets that my ancestors had, and to feel so closely tied to a place I had never even visited before. The opportunity to work in Sri Lanka has been an invaluable complement to my previous Canadian work experience and education. My placement at the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, has been a rewarding experience and helped me to comprehend and apply my skills to the complex environmental, financial, and social contexts surrounding the implementation of water supply projects in the country," said Sabina who also had the opportunity of interacting with high school students from across the country as a weekend volunteer at a youth leadership conference organized by Sri Lanka Unites.
"I found that the youth are engaged and passionate, and it is critical to provide them with the educational platform, support systems and opportunities that they need to reach their goals." She also believes that much of the value of LankaCorps lies in what the Fellows take back to their home communities. "By sharing this experience with my friends and family in Canada, I hope to encourage them to visit Sri Lanka themselves and to remain engaged and actively involved in future development of the country. The global Sri Lankan diaspora is seeking avenues to connect to Sri Lanka and participate in its development, and a strengthened bridge between Sri Lankans and the global diaspora would be a strong resource," she observes.
Sahani Chandraratna, who holds a degree in Sociology from George Washington University in Washington DC, has had a very strong association with Sri Lanka through annual trips since she was an infant. LankaCorps has enhanced her understanding of contemporary Sri Lanka through her placement at the Women Go Beyond initiative, a social sustainability project of MAS Holdings. "I was hesitant to work for MAS at first, even though I was aware of their international reputation as an ethical-leader in the apparel industry. My areas of interest are social work and public health and I was convinced that the private sector was not the place for me. However, the chance to work here has shown me that sincerely good work can be done in the most unlikely of places." Sahani added that the nature of the programme has enabled her to understand the challenges faced by the private sector and also the hardships encountered by the working poor in Sri Lanka.
"By working at MAS, I have been able to meet a diverse range of individuals; from members of the Board of Directors to first-week trainees at outstation factories. Traveling from plant to plant, I was able to observe the different personalities present at each one. The clearly distinct culture of each establishment, even if they were merely a few miles apart, was an important reminder of how truly diverse this nation is," she said, adding that the programme has re-affirmed her desire to work more permanently in Sri Lanka. "I would like to come back and have considered shifting my educational pursuits to have more of a global perspective in order to enhance my ability to make a difference here," she said. Shedding light upon Sahani’s contribution, Shevanthi Jayasuriya, the Manager of Women Go Beyond said, "Sahani has had a creative and pro-active approach. She has been able to interact and work with people in MAS production facilities at all levels and has been an asset to the team."
An opportunity to integrate
Although Seshma Kumararatne, a graduate in Political Science and History from the University of California at Riverside, also visited Sri Lanka while growing up, LankaCorps has exposed her to Sri Lankan culture and lifestyle in depth. "It’s been great to experience it first-hand from the perspective of a semi-local rather than a foreigner. I have integrated myself into the ‘working world’ and gained a well-rounded outlook on what Sri Lanka is like," says Seshma who believes that this endeavour has made her more attuned to her cultural roots whilst vastly improving her Sinhala. "I’ve learned a great deal working in the international relations sector and how Sri Lanka conducts itself on an international level. This experience has been crucial to informing me about the how the diaspora responds to Sri Lanka and in turn how its citizens respond to the diaspora."
Seshma, who is placed with the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, is involved in various research projects, including a policy paper on Sri Lanka’s engagement with the diaspora and she aspires to an international career. "My work with Sri Lanka is only just beginning and this venture has been an extremely fruitful experience which I am hoping will be the catalyst for much greater involvement with Sri Lanka locally as well as internationally," she added.
LankaCorps has enabled Ann Selvadurai from Missouri to gain a better understanding of Sri Lanka in its entirety. "My father didn’t like to talk much about Sri Lanka. So, after coming here, I’ve been able to hear so many sides to the story of the war, through meeting people at work and traveling around the country. Spending more time with my family than ever before has enabled me to understand more in depth the social and cultural structure here," said Ann, who double majored in Psychology and Spanish at Middlebury College in Vermont. Through her placement with, Women In Need, which helps women who suffer domestic violence, she has been able to add a wealth of experience both personally and professionally. "We have been able to explore Sri Lanka coast to coast. I have met family members whom I’ve never met before and I’ve also seen through my own eyes a very war-torn part of the country and its recovery." Ann is also thinking of returning to work with youth on reconciliation. "I am, without a doubt, coming back, whether for work, to live, or to visit. Sri Lanka is a part of me and now I feel it even more so," Ann’s words seem to finely encapsulate the ultimate vision of LankaCorps.
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