Conservation and friendship: Young US scholars reach out

By Malaka Rodrigo

“I’m still blown away by how fearless the Hiniduma schoolchildren were on the trek through the Sinharaja rainforest. Kids were passing me with ease – I felt not only old and lame but American as well,” wrote Shelly, one of the young Periclean Scholars from the United States who was on a field tour with students they assist in Sri Lanka.

On their Sinharaja trek. Pix by Chaminda Mahanayake

This group of undergraduates from North Carolina’s Elon University have been helping the remote Panangala School in Hiniduma through Rainforest Rescue International to establish an environmental club as School Rainforest Rangers and also a library.

This was not all. Last weekend, the Periclean Scholars of Elon University organized a summit to facilitate communication between distinguished scholars and globally recognized leaders on issues of environmental education and stewardship. Titled LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum), this summit focused on how some of the environmental issues affect and impact the regions and peoples of Sri Lanka. Lankan environmental scholars, Prof. Sarath Kotagama, Dr. Ranil Senanayake, Dr. Hemanthi Ranasinghe, Hemantha Withanage and Nalaka Gunawardene addressed the summit.

The Periclean Scholars Class of 2011 are part of an established programme in the US that encourages and facilitates commitments by colleges and universities in social responsibility and participatory citizenship. A Periclean Scholar is a student who is committed to making a sustainable difference in the world. At the start of each new batch in Elon University, the interested students can apply to become a Periclean Scholar. Those chosen then get together under a mentor assigned by the university and then select a country and a focus to support during their three years at university. These students who came to support Sri Lanka’s environment have been studying about Sri Lanka since they become Periclean Scholars in 2008.

“They have become mini experts about Sri Lanka and it provides an opportunity leading to understanding different cultures too,” said Dr. Crista Arangala, their mentor. The present batch consists of 35 scholars and they selected environment as their main focus.

Dr. Tom Arcaro, Director of Project Pericles at Elon University too was proud of his students who had put in a lot of hard work in organizing the event. All 14 scholars said they found Sri Lanka an extremely good experience. Some of the girls took part in the summit dressed in traditional Sri Lankan saree. “The saree is comfortable and I like it,” said Natalie Lampert. Sharing some memorable moments she said she met little Malmi at Hiniduma and her love and care for the rainforest was inspiring.

“We also learnt a lot through LEAF. The most important thing is that we made lots of new friends and had loads of fun despite the hard work,” said 22-year-old Jesse Lee. The Panangala school and other programmes initiated by them will be supported by a Periclean alumni afterwards, so that the work done is sustained.

Saree-clad Katie Dirks said she can’t wait to go back to her country and share her great Sri Lankan experience with friends and family.

“We hope these kinds of programmes will be continued in the future too,” said Prof. Sarath Kotagama, Professor of Ecology of the University of Colombo in his closing remarks at the LEAF conference.

“Api Yamu” as the schoolchildren in Panangala said over and over to us when they wanted us to keep going and going through the rainforest. Likewise we will keep going on protecting environment,” said Natalie asking everybody to march forward toward conservation.

The US Ambassador and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo were the chief guests at the LEAF conference. The University of Colombo, the American Center and Rainforest Rescue International also supported LEAF.

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