31 March, 2023


A Few Powerful Lessons I Learned From Fulbright Scholarship

By Deepika Udagama

Dr.Deepika Udagama

Dr.Deepika Udagama

His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa,

The President Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka,

Office of the President,

Temple Trees,

150 Galle Road,

Colombo 3,

Sri Lanka.

Dear Mr. President,

This letter is written to you as our Head of State as the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission (US-SLFC) celebrates its 60th anniversary of the Fulbright International Educational Exchange Programme – arguably the most prestigious educational exchange programme in the world. Hundreds of Sri Lankan scholars, public servants and professional have benefited from the opportunity to study and research in the US through this Programme, and I thought that it is most pertinent to share some reflections on it with Your Excellency on this ocassion. The purpose of the letter is not only that it be part of the public record, but  to also urge Your Excellency to take special note of the rich legacy of the Programme and to ensure its further enhancement in Sri Lanka.

The Fulbright Programme has been a special part of my life. I was the proud recipient of a Fulbright Senior Scholar award (1997-98) which was tenured at the Harvard Law School, USA. Several years later, I was privileged to be nominated by the Government of Sri Lanka to serve on the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission Board 2005, which was tasked with, among other responsibilities,  selecting future Fulbright Scholars. Significantly, that was a coincidental continuation of a family tradition. My father, Dr. Premadasa Udagama, was one of the earliest Sri Lankan recipients of a Fulbright grant. As the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education (1970-77), he also served on the Fulbright Commission Board ex officio. Family history aside, I know many university colleagues and also former students who have benefited from the Programme, and who, like me, think the experience was a turning point in their careers and their personal lives.

Our collective experiences, and indeed my own,  tell me that over the years the Fulbright  Programme has truly accomplished, and perhaps surpassed, the original objective of the Programme. Its founder, US Senator J. William Fulbright, envisioned an exchange programme for the “promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science”.  His ideal was fuelled by his own experiences as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Over the past six decades and more the programme has contributed to the creation of a global community of scholars and professionals with shared values and cross-cultural understanding.

At first glance, it may appear that the programme is about indoctrinating  foreign students about US interests and the American way of life. But what one achieves through it is much more than an exposure to what is American. Aside from sharpening my knowledge and skills in my subject area, and being exposed to the multi-cultural fabric of  US society, what I found to be of lasting value, both personally and professionally, was the democratising and humanising value of liberal education that flourishes in the US.

I discovered the democratising power of the classroom; how great ideas emerge through vigorous debate;  that free thought and expression are civic virtues; how difficult questions pertaining to discrimination and stereotypes  are openly confronted; how hierarchies and orthodoxies are dismantled; that when education lets the human spirit soar free we become better persons; that education is mutli-faceted and cannot be boxed; that in a democracy education and citizenship must be closely linked; that through exposure to other cultures we learn to recognize and respect the value of humanism.

Those are but a few of the powerful lessons I learned through my exposure to the US education system. As we struggle through our own socio-political and economic problems in Sri Lanka,  and in particular strive to determine the goals of education, I  find those lessons to be invaluable. That a society such as the US which is steeped in the value of free enterprise, nevertheless, has heavily invested in a value-based education system is an object lesson of what a democratic society should prioritize.

As a member of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission Board I have had the privilege of interviewing some of the best and the brightest in our country. Meeting them from diverse fields of study was an exhilarating experience. It was evident that given the opportunities they were ready to reach for the stars. The Fulbright Programme provided them with just that right opportunity to enter a wider world of knowledge and experiences–and Sri Lanka is the richer for it. Fulbright scholars, on their return, have been a resevoir of talent for Sri Lanka excelling in various fields of endeavour.

Thanks to the untiring efforts of those at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, the Fulbright tradition continues to enrich us. I would like to invite Your Excellency to join us, the Fulbright Family, in saluting the visionary and magnanimous initiative of Senator Fulbright on this platinum anniversary of the US-SLFC. I take this opportunity to also urge Your Excellency to pause to think of the continuing value of the Programme to our country and commit to support the Programme to the maximum possible extent.

Thank you.

Dr. Nelum Deepika Udagama

*This essay is taken from the book, ‘Letters to Our Presidents’ published by US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 2

    Have Weerawansa, that brilliant learned Minister, and the Buddhist Sinhala chauvinist cabal of Nalin de S, Gunda Amarasekera and Company
    declared war on the Fullbright Scholarship? We remember Weerawansa, in his great wisdom, declaring Google, Wikipedia, the Computer culture are all anti-National and against the Sinhala race and culture. May the Devas save our talented post-graduate students from these “wise men” – trusted advisors to the Rajapakse family.


    • 1

      Backlash – Your comments correctly identify the barbarians in our midst; Thank You! There are more who live by the simple ‘dictum’ that any knowledge and learning is too dangerous a commodity to be given to the unwashed masses. It is nice of Dr Udugama et al to sing the praises of the Fulbright Scholarship but how much, I wonder, have these privileged few done to further the cause of Higher Education here in our blessed island paradise? Not much, considering the fact that our Higher Education sphere has been perennially underfunded for several years, and over several governments, including the current. Year over year the real value of investment in our Higher Education has fallen. We still spend valuable foreign exchange sending our capable to study in universities and places of higher learning in foreign countries – mostly in other languages. Those capable but unable are left to languish at home, fodder to be manipulated by our devious frog-in-the-well politicians. Letters and entreaties to Mahinda Rajapakse and his coterie are akin to placing pearls before swine.

    • 0

      This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

    • 1


      “Have Weerawansa, that brilliant learned Minister, and the Buddhist Sinhala chauvinist cabal of Nalin de S, Gunda Amarasekera and Company”

      The above, Weerawansa, Nalin de Sare Gunda Amarasekera and Company”
      are all Para-Sinhala according to Native Veddah. They have South Indian DNA in their bodies.

      Native Veddah wants them to return to their Native Land, South India.

      • 0

        Amarasiri, don’t you have any other argument to bring to the table? Everyday its ‘para-Sinhala’ or ‘para-Tamil’ argument; has anyone called you ‘para Amarasiri’ that is bugging you?

        • 1


          Calling Spade, a Spade is all right.

          Calling a Para, a Para is all right too.

          It is the Sinhala who used to call the Tamils, Para-Demala, Para-Tamils.

          So, Amarasiri, the Egalitarian, took the position, to keep reminding them, the Monk Mahanama Sinhala types, that they are in fact Para-Sinhala, because like to call the Tamils, Para-Tamils, when in fact they are para-Sinhala.

          In addition, the so-called Upper and Middle Caste Tamils used call lower caste Tamils , Parayan, Drummers, because the drummer caste is supposed to be lower caste. This is against the principles of Egalitarianism.

          So, Amarasiri decided to kill two birds, two Paras, with one Stone, the Para-Sinhala and Para-Tamils, because indeed they are paras. The Evidence supports that. How many, what percent, Para-Sinhala and Para-Tamils know that they are paras?

          It is like saying that the Earth goes around the Sun and the data supports it, but still about 25% of the Americans and Europeans thinks otherwise.

          1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says
          by SCOTT NEUMAN
          February 14, 2014 5:55 PM ET


          A quarter of Americans surveyed could not correctly answer that the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, according to a report out Friday from the National Science Foundation.

          The survey of 2,200 people in the United States was conducted by the NSF in 2012 and released on Friday at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

          To the question “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth,” 26 percent of those surveyed answered incorrectly.

          In the same survey, just 39 percent answered correctly (true) that “The universe began with a huge explosion” and only 48 percent said “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”

          Just over half understood that antibiotics are not effective against viruses.

          As alarming as some of those deficits in science knowledge might appear, Americans fared better on several of the questions than similar, but older surveys of their Chinese and European counterparts.

          Only 66 percent of people in a 2005 European Union poll answered the basic astronomy answer correctly. However, both China and the EU fared significantly better (66 percent and 70 percent, respectively) on the question about human evolution.

          In a survey compiled by the National Opinion Research Center from various sources, Americans seemed to generally support science research and expressed the greatest interest in new medical discoveries and local school issues related to science. They were least interested in space exploration, agricultural developments and international and foreign policy issues related to science.

  • 2

    Dear Dr.Deepika Udagama,

    RE: A Few Powerful Lessons I Learned From Fulbright Scholarship

    “This letter is written to you as our Head of State as the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission (US-SLFC) celebrates its 60th anniversary of the Fulbright International Educational Exchange Programme – arguably the most prestigious educational exchange programme in the world”

    Some Editing and Corrections are needed.

    1. “His Excellency”President Mahinda Rajapaksa,

    Please change to: Mr. President

    Can you Please the ” His Excellency” Part out. Just stick to Mr. President, as he was elected by the people, whether they were fools, educated, racists, paras, atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or non-believers. For somebody who does not follow the constitution, does nor follow the rule of law, His Excellency is a Travesty of Justice and Etiquette. Even the President of the US, a Superpower, is not addressed that way.


    How to Address The President of the United States
    Envelope, official:
    The President
    The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
    Washington, DC 20500

    Letter salutation:

    Dear Mr./Madam President:

  • 2

    Dear Dr. I think that you have invited a wrong person. Look at qualification of this president: I could list hundreds of them: he waorked as assistant self filling person at J. university and it is said he got law college certificate:
    Like the way he runs the country and university system in SL : all posts in university systems today are given to his supporters and university system is under political control, murderers and drug dealers are behind him . Law and order are not there in this country, corruption is widespread and price of goods are skyrocketing every day and people suffers a lots under his rules and he does not have any respect to educated people and yet you invite him to support Fulbright programme : he would bring more thung and drug dealers to this programme and I hope you did Not get it through him .’

  • 1

    Did GoRa went on this scholarship too?

    He seems to be a full fledged American.

    Is he a mole?

    Rumour is that GoRa’s house in US was searched by FBI?


  • 1

    Mr Sri Lankan President, Ms Udagama says –
    “….what I found to be of lasting value, both personally and professionally, was the democratising and humanising value of liberal education that flourishes in the US.”

    Whatever their dealings with the outside World are, the US teaches Liberal Democracy, in the schools within their own Country.

    For example:- Last week, a TV News Item reported President Barak Obama’s response to a heckler at a Recent Meeting.

    He did not call for the Police to arrest the heckler, for the disturbance, but invited him to meet and discuss the problem, straight after the Meeting.

    We hope they sorted out their problems in a truly Democratic manner.
    When will we see a similar resolution in Sri Lanka?

  • 1

    Majority of Sri Lanka’s university lecturers do NOT know the meaning of CRITICAL Thinking. The university system is closed and repressive- filled with envy, jealousy and BACK STABBING.

    The culture of RAGGING exists among students AND academic staff who work hard to back stab each other and keep out the best and brightest academics from the system as the university is highly politicized and full of the DREGS of the rotten Sri Lankan higher education system.

    Indeed the best and brightest Sri Lanka academics are all outside the University – working independently and overseas and as consultants because they cannot deal with the jealousy, envy and MEDIOCRITY and politicization that is the dominant ethos in the national university system which should be closed down since it is beyond repair… This is Jarapassa’s gift to Lanka – face the facts Madam!

  • 3


    For a nation who lived by the sword and who now lives by the guns, no number of Fulbright scholarships is going to make any difference.

    This is a country where even Buddhism has become a tool of violence.

    I think that the collective flawed gene of Sri Lankans is impervious to outside calming influences. We have had many an overseas educated scholar in Sri Lanka who held key positions, who talked big talks and effused bright ideas. However they all proved to be pathetically inept and gave in easily to the lure of bloodlust.

    I think the Fulbright scholarships on Sri Lankans are wasted hence should be scrapped.

    • 0

      As always have been, your comments summarize the situation tiptop.
      I really dont know what the writer invites current president in this way, as if the writer has zero idea about the ground realities of the country under his administration.

  • 3

    the purpose of education is to liberate or free our minds from the debris of ignorance,myths, fossilized thoughts and the prison of our perceived history. Rabindranath Tagore, called these the ‘dreary desert of dead habit’.

    Education at all levels must achieve this, to permit the human mind and spirit ti soar. The liberating influence should reach its pinnacle at the university level. The best of the universities in the west, particularly in North America, permit this flower of mental liberation to bloom. This does not say every student reaps this benefit. The opportunity however is available for those who are capable of benefiting from it.

    Dr.Deepika Udagama, has highlighted this aspect of the Fulbright program quite well.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 1

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran:-
      Thank you for recalling the Words of one of the Greatest Asian Thinkers of our time.
      I think it would be in order to remind ourselves again, of the whole of his Poem:-

      “Where the Mind is without Fear, and the Head is held high;
      Where Knowledge is Free!
      Where the World has not been broken up into fragments, by narrow Domestic walls;
      Where Words come out from the depths of Truth;
      Where tireless striving, stretches its arms towards Perfection;
      Where the Clear Stream of Reason
      Has not lost its way into the dreary Desert Sand of dead Habit;
      Where the Mind is led forward by thee
      Into ever-widening Thought and Action;
      Into that Heaven of Freedom, My Father, let my Country Awake!”

      Rabindranath Tagore

  • 2

    Dr.Deepika Udagama,

    Recently I have noticed that Fulbright scholars are coming out of the woodwork and praising their own achievements; shamelessly strutting their wares about.

    Let me ask these so-called scholars what scholarly work they have done other than getting a PhD degree, which thousands of graduates obtain today?
    Many engineering and science industries employ mostly the PhDs.

    What is your tangible contribution to knowledge? If one Googles the names of these so-called scholars, would we see any seminal work done by them?

    The saying goes: In the valley of the blind one eyed man is king!

    The war criminal accused Mahinda is not the person who appreciates contribution to knowledge: He is an embodiment of lies.

    • 0

      You cannot accuse Dr U of praising her own achievements. Indeed her letter is notable for its modesty and lack of self-praise. See also my response further down where I refer to just one of her activities in the university of which I am aware. I also recall that she was a member of a committee appointed during President Premadasa’s time, and chaired by Prof G L Pieris, to look into the excessive use of Emergency Regulations. I am almost certain that she and her fellow committee members would have recommended the repeal of a number of regulations. However, her former professor and Faculty Head had by then already become a “politician” and the result was yet another lame Govt Committee report.

      In fact about he only emergency regulation that the FInal Report recommended appealing was:

      “It shall be an offense to point a gun at anyone”!!

      Knowing several of those on the committee I am almost CERTAIN they would have kept that regulation if none others! Especially as an election was coming up.

      However, mine is just an inpsired guess. Committee members are silent entities.

  • 1

    Dr.Udagama, You are absolutely right in saying, quote “I discovered the democratising power of the classroom; how great ideas emerge through vigorous debate; that free thought and expression are civic virtues; how difficult questions pertaining to discrimination and stereotypes are openly confronted; how hierarchies and orthodoxies are dismantled; that when education lets the human spirit soar free we become better persons; that education is mutli-faceted and cannot be boxed; that in a democracy education and citizenship must be closely linked; that through exposure to other cultures we learn to recognize and respect the value of humanism” unquote.

    In Sri Lanka, we have to think Mahinda’s Thought, and act according to Mahinda’s Will. You see our President atarted his political career when Mao ruled China, and it was Mao’s Thought and his Little Red Book that held sway. We are still in 1970.

    I do not know why all these Fullbright scholars keep writing to the Notsobright President.

  • 2

    It would be better if our scholars and academics are more direct when it comes to criticising the Govt. For instance when 18A was passed we did not hear any critique. When the military evicts people and takes over private properties we do not hear from our bright sparks. When mad monks go on a rampage our scholars are silent.

    What use of scholarship if it does not contribute to society, the poor and handicapped. Better be direct and to the point than beating about the bush. President may not take much note of these letters. He has other things on his mind. Home grown solutions?

    • 0

      I am not sure that your comment about the 18th Amendment is correct. I am pretty certain that Dr Deepika Udagama was one of many voices heard criticising this amendment. And, if I am not mistaken, a number of organisations and people took out a large paid advert against the amendment as well. At least people generally associated with civil and human rights issues were far from silent at that time.

      I appreciate the fact that Deepika has not used her letter about the Fulbright Scholarship to blow her own trumpet. She has, instead, gone straight to the heart of he matter she is writing about.

      Moreover, I believe part of her activism after returning to Sri Lanka was to set up a university programme on HR & International HR law, and to take the latter right to where it was needed — to the armed forces.

  • 2

    Let me take a different view, why is on the earth all these people keep writing to the President ? during the past few month alone I have read so many letters addressed to the president.

    I can understand writing to the a president if he is just and honest ruler, what a joke ! the president and his henchman are the ones who are Stirring the pot from different corners as an when they require.

    All what they do is devise schemes to keep the pot boiling so they can mislead the masses from real issues.

    And our scholars keep writing to the president ! I am yet to see even a hint of an action from Mr. President for any of these letters.

    In my opinion what the scholars should do is educate the masses, on utilizing their voting rights wisely and educate the masses to stand up to their rights.

    Obviously the government has had some major achievements, ending the war is one of the highlights. However imagine the amount of growth and prosperity we could have had for the every single citizen if we had a balanced, corruption free (or much less corrupted) governance.

    Currently every 1 rupee spent on development 100 is taken out by the supply chain.

    Please stop this foolishness of writing to President.

  • 2

    Dear Ms Udagama,

    The responses to your letter was more interesting. Firstly. how you addressed our President after receiving the education at Fulbright education and exposure to multi cultural fabric of US society. Do the Americans addressed their President as Excellency unless you are looking for some big favour.
    Then your letter to President will be seen only by a few as Telegraph is not accessible to Sri Lankans.
    Many people cannot get into the Fulbright as they do not have the necessary connections. Finally Ms Udagama, may be you had an English education and was able to get a scholarship, but all Sri Lankan children of that era were prevented from having a English education as education in English Medium was completely stopped during 1970 to 1977 the time your father was the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, unfortunately.

    • 0

      Non Scholar: Notwithstanding the good and valid points that you make, I think we should NOT penalise Ms Udagama simply for being the daughter of a well connected permanent secretary. Truth to tell, the rot, re English education in our schools, set in a long time before her father’s tenure at the Ministry of Education as politicians from the late fifties onwards jostled to outdo each other in offering panaceas to promote Sinhala at the expense of all other options – this was the ultimate throwing away of the baby with the bath water. Consequently, it was our education policies of the early sixties onwards that led us to inherit the present ‘man woke onthara bijja’ generation of English speakers. One other small point: Ms Udagama correctly follows the Presidential website advice on addressing our President. It would be bad etiquette, if not insulting, to disregard that advice. How the Americans or anybody else address their President is for them.

  • 1

    This is against Islam!

    Girls and education don’t mix in Islam.


    (Education is haram for girls)


    • 1

      Bless the Mullah and Ulemah

      They will get virgins in Haven

  • 1

    ” I discovered the democratising power of the classroom; how great ideas emerge through vigorous debate “

    All that is old hat now. Today as far as the US and NATO is concerned ‘democratising power’ comes from the unseen/unheard drone and the bombing runs carried out by the various incarnations of the fighter-bomber. It leaves an indelible mark on the undefended people at the receiving end, and affects far more people than can a Fulbright scholarship.

  • 0

    Dr.Udagama benefitted as a Fulbright scholar due to her knowledge of English.
    This portal of knowledge is denied to the majority of sri lankans even after 666 years of independence.
    From Banda’s Sinhala Only days to the present,only the affluent are able to obtain meaningful higher education.
    Our “national leaders” are not bothered.

  • 0

    Her letter cachinnate that ‘..rich legacy of the program and its ensure enhancement of future Sri lanka..’ role played by Fulbright scholarship says Dr Deepaika Udgagama and her father Dr P.Udgagama that family fully enjoy rational education of US mindset.
    I realized which that is Good for them, that could be good for the whole nation too; that was US guideline of intellectual morality and present US education-democracy and political education has certain Global deficit has been by puffery of revaluated of Dr Deepekia.
    She has no take into account that procedural democratic process are largely change that value of education of politics of democracy no longer there.
    Politics of democracy of course spilled over national states.
    Global civil society has insistently drawn People attention to major issues of mass poverty ,wars, diseases, nuclear expansionism, climate changes and violations of human rights of developing countries by rich nations. New forms of identity of politics of Terrorists of ethnicity and religions roots are undermine sovereignty of nation unity and democracy.
    Certain elites has not underlying the new model has a fundamentalism change in way of thinking of outlook of world of people-oriented education how much is important.
    Hope and wish Fulbright scholars has taken into these factors to be address by and large New Education in US!

    • 1

      Sirisena Yatawara

      I believe that you would do well to apply for a Fullbright Scholarship. It might improve your command of the English Language!

  • 0

    Due to lack of command of my English, I am not fit apply for Fulbright Scholarship, that I do accept that Fulbright’s are reserved for ‘Rationalist’.
    I do not want to command myself by English mindset and its world outlook.
    I am willing command by Knowledge that cognation of Changing, Global motion, movement, change and development of Education. Human creativity not command by English only ,but that by newly innovated scientific of saleable knowledge is vital rather than old schools of thoughts.
    I too highly appreciated Dr Udagama and Family enjoy that gain Fulbright knowledge- icon of creativity that old world ‘rationalism’. Future has change of balance of civilization of Knowledge.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.