Five years ago, my mother told me about a bright young woman named Manori from Sri Lanka who was struggling to complete medical school due to financial hardships. I was so moved by her situation that I shared Manori’s story with a group of Sri Lankans studying with me in Washington, DC.
Although tuition at Sri Lanka’s public schools is free, we all knew that the high cost of educational expenses such as transportation, boarding, stationery, and private tutoring create barriers to education for our country’s most vulnerable populations. As a result, children and young adults with great academic potential regularly give up education in order to work to support their families.
Unable to pay for attending a university outside of her village, Manori was on the verge of giving up her life-long dream of becoming a doctor. Realizing the urgent need, each of us chipped in a few dollars to provide Manori with the 10,000 rupees (about $100) she needed to continue pursuing her educational dream.
As we reflected back on how small contributions could mean so much to Manori’s future, we started to think about a more holistic solution to the financial barriers to education in Sri Lanka. As a small group of friends living in the diaspora, we had easily pooled together enough resources to help Manori, but what about all of the tens of thousands of other Manoris out there? We wanted to do something to help. One person’s story inspired us to create Educate Lanka, a nonprofit organization that now supports hundreds of underprivileged Sri Lankan students achieve their educational goals by leveraging the diaspora’s resources.
Educate Lanka began in 2007 with just ten young expatriate volunteers. We identified Sri Lankan students in need through our volunteer community leaders on the ground. We then placed their profiles on our online platform to match them with diaspora and non-diaspora donors from around the world who were willing to underwrite the cost of their educational expenses through ten to twenty dollar monthly scholarships. We created a mechanism based on on-the-ground volunteer liaisons that coordinate scholarship distributions and facilitate constant student feedback to their respective sponsors.
By relying on volunteers to run all of our operations, one hundred percent of the funds we raise goes directly to the students we serve. The diaspora community’s response to our mission and the model has been inspiring, and the rest became history.
Since Educate Lanka’s inception, we have supported over 350 deserving and high-potential leaders from across Sri Lanka with over $100,000 (approximately thirteen million rupees) in scholarship funding. About thirty of our scholarship-recipients have already successfully completed their university education, allowing them to not only enter their dream professions but to also break their families’ cycle of poverty and build Sri Lanka’s brain trust. Our donor base includes nearly 400 individuals from dozens of countries.
We have been able to achieve these results without any administrative costs by leveraging the power of volunteerism; over sixty members of the diaspora have come together for a common cause and contributed thousands of volunteer hours in support of our country of heritage. Our organization’s transparency and emphasis on innovation have helped us to recruit and retain volunteers.
Having started as a small group of diaspora volunteers based in Washington, DC, we are poised to take our Educate Lanka model global. Though we started out by helping out vulnerable students in Sri Lanka, we cannot afford to ignore the sixty-one million children around the world who lack access to a basic schooling.
As a start, we will expand our model to Bangladesh, which has a clear and urgent need for increased access to education. We are poised to launch our expansion in 2013 under the global governance structure of Educate World. Our replication strategy is based on countries with a strong diaspora presence in the developed world. We plan to start Educate Lanka chapters across these diaspora strongholds to provide them with an opportunity to engage with their own communities to support Educate Lanka’s mission.
By continuing to innovate, we have been able to evolve and grow as an organization. We are looking forward to introducing our new online knowledge sharing and mentoring platform next year, connecting knowledge and educational resources from the developed world with students in developing countries. This program, which also includes a platform for one-to-one mentoring, will add a strong complement to our current scholarship model.
We welcome you to join on our long journey, and we hope that you will share your ideas, your energy, and your passion with us. You can support our latest efforts by following our current campaign dedicated to this year’s goals: It Only Takes Ten.
Staying true to our founding motto, “education is the foundation of every country,” we hope that what we started in Sri Lanka will reach many other countries and empower thousands of high-potential future leaders from destitute backgrounds to achieve their dream education, lifting their families and societies from the cycle of poverty.
About the Author: Manjula Dissanayake is the founding president of the Educate Lanka Foundation. Born and raised in Kandy, Sri Lanka, he moved to the U.S. at age nineteen. Manjula recently completed a master’s degree at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he led the Empower Program for Social Entrepreneurship. He spoke on the Secretary’s inaugural Global Diaspora Forum’s education panel in 2011 and was named a finalist for the UN’s volunteer of the year award in 2011. Manjula earned a bachelor of finance from the University of Maryland and he has worked at CapitalSource Finance and the World Bank.
The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.