Promoting Diaspora Engagement One LankaCorps Fellow at a Time
March 1, 2017
Every year at this time, I get excited about meeting the new pool of young people of Sri Lankan heritage who are applying for The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps Fellowship Program. Coming from dramatically different backgrounds, what they have in common is that they all spent their formative years growing up overseas and have a burning curiosity and passion to learn more about the country of their heritage. I love talking to the applicants and learning about their upbringing, their fragile links to the country, fleeting visits to Sri Lanka, if any, and most of all, discussing how they wish to form their own special connection to their parent’s homeland through the fellowship.
Each year, as we narrow down the applicants through a competitive interview process, I realize what a valuable opportunity we have created. We now have a group of 30 alumnae, 26 women and four men, who are roving ambassadors for the program, as well as international champions for Sri Lanka and its people based on their own first-hand experiences and understanding.
“Growing up, I always associated the descriptions about Jaffna as representing the whole of Sri Lanka. After living and working in Sri Lanka, I was able to see how different Jaffna is from the rest of the country. Now when someone talks about Sri Lanka, it feels more personal and real,” said Jessica Uthayakumaran, a 2015 fellow and Canadian citizen, who leveraged her background in public health in her placement at the Family Rehabilitation Centre.
The Asia Foundation launched the LankaCorps Fellowship Program in 2011 to enable young professionals of Sri Lankan heritage to engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka for a period of six months. The fellowship, now completing its fifth year, provides young people of Sri Lankan heritage with the opportunity to experience Sri Lanka on their own terms through individually tailored placements that optimize their unique combinations of experience, knowledge, and skills. The fellowship provides return economy airfare, accommodation, monthly stipends, and health insurance. Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, fellows are supported through their initial transition. We arrange a structured orientation to life in Colombo, provide preliminary spoken Sinhala classes to enable them to manage their day-to-day needs, and meet with the fellows weekly during the first month and then monthly thereafter to guide, support, encourage, and mentor. Weekly language classes are offered in both Sinhala and Tamil and some fellows opt to do both.
LankCorps placements are tailored to each selected candidate—matching their talents and interests with the local organizations that host them, while furthering their own career goals and interests. For example, 2016 LankaCorps fellow Shaaranya Pillai worked part-time at the Family Rehabilitation Centre while supporting the Chitrasena Dance Academy to document a reconciliation program that was based on the unique dance forms of the North and South. Her placement not only enabled her to use her academic qualifications in psychology but benefited from her fluency in Tamil, her Carnatic music talent, and her interest in dance. 2016 fellow Nina Fernando worked full-time at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) on an inter-faith program, while using her musical talent to perform with the community in local jazz events, music clubs, and programs.
“[The fellowship] brought me to Sri Lanka for the first time and also brought my parents back for the first time since they left. In that way, it left a lasting meaningful connection to Sri Lanka for my family in a way that nothing else could have. I do feel a different perception of the country and am much more invested now than ever to help in the country’s development,” said Pillai.
The Asia Foundation also organizes a weekly lecture series on different aspect of Sri Lanka’s history, politics, and culture during the fellowship. This lecture series—which has become one of the most popular parts of the program—includes topics as diverse as wildlife conservation and gender law and women’s rights, to a demonstration of Kandyan Dance with the Chitrasena Dance Ensemble and a talk by the Foundation’s own staff member about growing up in Jaffna during the conflict. In 2016, we had a talk from Rosanna Flamer Caldera, an LGBT rights activist and, as in previous years, Groundviews co-convenor, Sanjana Hattotuwa, held a fascinating discussion on the use of social media in Sri Lanka.
Most fellows leave Sri Lanka with unforgettable memories, wonderful adventures, lots of new personal connections, and most importantly, overwhelming reasons why they can return to Sri Lanka—or decide that they will simply find a way to stay on—as at least one fellow has done each year. Others have already found ways to continue to give back to their country—both financially and personally. Either way, we strive to support and guide each fellow so that they gain a deeper understanding of contemporary Sri Lanka and have the opportunity to contribute to the land of their heritage, from within our shores or remotely.
Dinesha de Silva is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Sri Lanka. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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