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Feature

Gertrude Hewapathirana

Gertrude Hewapathirana is a Humphrey Fellow and Colonial Dames scholarship recipient.

Helping tsunami victims in Sri Lanka

A scholarship paves the way to doctoral student's efforts

By Jodi Auvin

From M, spring 2005

"I'd never heard of Minnesota when I moved here," says Gertrude Hewapathirana, a U of M doctoral student. "In my country, Sri Lanka, we know only of cities like Washington D.C. and New York."

"The reason I came here in 1997 was because it was chosen for me," she says with a laugh. "I was selected as a Humphrey Fellow. In Sri Lanka, I was helping women and unemployed youth as a trainer, social worker, and managing director of the Business Management Bureau Lanka. After completing my Humphrey fellowship, I went back to Sri Lanka, then returned to the U in 2002."

Hewapathirana, who is married, earned an M.S. in 2004. Now, thanks to a major scholarship from the Minnesota Colonial Dames of America, she's completing a Ph.D. in World Community and Family Education with an emphasis on adult education.

"After the tsunami, I didn't sleep for days," says Hewapathirana. "I wondered, if I don't help, what is the purpose of my living?"

Since the tsunami that struck Asia on December 26, Hewapathirana has been occupied with far more than studies. Many of her relatives died and one is still missing.

"After the tsunami, I didn't sleep for days," says Hewapathirana. "I wondered, if I don't help, what is the purpose of my living? My husband and I had stayed in the villages that had been hit. These were the poorest of the poor. I feel so sad because these people are my friends. I wondered what to do and how to do it."

Because Sri Lanka had never experienced any major natural disaster, no mechanism was in place for the magnitude of relief required. Hewapathirana and two other Sri Lankan doctoral students, Upali Karunatilake and Anojini Nagahawatte, decided to help, and began by establishing the Sri Lankan Student Association.

"With the help of three organizations, we identified Hambantota, a village in southern Sri Lanka, one of the poorest areas," says Hewapathirana. "Our minimum target is to raise $40,000 to build 20 houses and help 20 families until they become self-reliant. For that we seek assistance from donors. Because we're working through volunteers, there are no administrative costs or high overhead."

The students also want to help victims find jobs. "We're looking for U.S. volunteers who can go and provide know-how in starting a business," says Hewapathirana. "My husband is working on lining up micro-lending to enable people to buy materials."

Ultimately, says Hewapathirana, "Our goals are to cultivate friendships and to have a long-term impact on world peace and international relations."

Those goals are not much different from those of the Colonial Dames, a lineage-based organization founded in 1891 focusing on historic preservation, patriotic service, and educational projects. The Minnesota branch is unusual in that it awards scholarships to international students as well as U.S. students. In the 1950s, Mrs. John S. Pillsbury and Josef Mestenhauser, then a professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, created a scholarship program to promote international understanding.

Since then, the scholarship, which is awarded to students who are committed to development in their home country, has helped 866 students from 80 countries attend the U of M.

"The scholarship is a miracle," says Hewapathirana. "Without it, I wouldn't be able to continue my studies or do this type of service. Because I'm here, I'm having an impact on others' lives."

For more information on the Sri Lankan Student Association, see Sri Lankan.

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