By Deepika Udagama –
His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
The President Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka,
Office of the President,
150 Galle Road,
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.
Dr. Nelum Deepika Udagama