The US: Still the land of opportunities
The story of student Shafak Samsheer is a truly inspiring one

A decade can simultaneously be considered both a long and short period of time, but it certainly is enough time to determine the success of an organisation. Since its inception 10 years ago, it is evident that Scholarships for USA (Pvt) Ltd. - Sri Lanka's number one independent student recruiter to the USA - has established itself firmly as a key player in providing excellent opportunities for higher education for aspiring students in Sri Lanka.

Shafak Samsheer, a student at St. John's University USA, is currently into his third year at the institution majoring in a Bachelor of Arts in Management

Now celebrating its 10th year anniversary, Scholarships for USA proudly boasts a list which includes hundreds of talented students who have made it to America thanks to their efforts and has built numerous partnerships with esteemed American universities in order to provide Sri Lankan students with the best opportunities available to them.

Although each and every one of the students they have sent abroad are talented in many ways and have made a mark for themselves on their respective campuses, the story of student Shafak Samsheer is a truly inspiring one.

He is a graduate from St. John's University USA, an exclusive private liberal arts college and majored in Bachelor of Arts in Management. His life at a glance seems quite normal and he assured me that it was indeed the case - the eldest in a family of five, with two younger brothers, the overachiever attended Alethea International School all his life where he excelled, getting top grades, being heavily involved in extra-curricular activities and towards the latter stages of his school career was also appointed deputy games captain.

Yet, behind this normal facade lies a tragic story. Born in Jaffna, Shafak was just a couple of months old when on one day in 1989, the Muslims in Jaffna were forcibly evicted from their homes and were made to flee within a mere 24 hours. Just a family of three at the time, Shafak's parents along with him came to Colombo where they rebuilt their lives and his father today is a successful businessman.

"To be honest, I was far too young at the time for our exit from Jaffna for it to really affect me. Growing up we didn't feel any different from those who have been in Colombo all their lives and while our lives weren't luxurious, our parents provided us with everything we needed but one thing my father always emphasised on, and does even now, is the value of everything - we were not allowed to take anything for granted," Shafak explained.

With his parents constantly encouraging him to do better, he sailed through his school career. He described with a smile how his mother would help him prepare for speech and essay competitions and how they would walk down to a neighbour living down the road for further assistance. Shafak stressed on the fact that his parents were very keen on their children all receiving an education in English.
After completing his O/Ls, he enrolled in CIMA, attending the classes over the weekend. At the time, he had no intention of attending university.

"My parents though were very keen on me getting a higher education and felt that the US was the place to go. One day, I noticed an advertisement by Scholarships for USA and contacted them and a series of emails later, I was heading to St. John's," he said laughing.

With a 50% scholarship, Shafak headed for the US in mid-2008 and found much to his surprise that it was nothing like the movies. He explained that there was no culture shock and in fact was taken aback by how serene and idyllic it all was, stating that Colombo in comparison seemed far more commercial. The people turned out to be very friendly, although individualistic and immersed in their own lives. The food he said with a wide grin was excellent and there was no shortage of choices.

Shafak once again created a niche for himself in the university consisting of a mere 2,000 students becoming the Intercultural Affairs Officer at the Saint John's Senate, and perhaps the first Sri Lankan to be in the Senate and by making the most of the opportunities available also got the chance to attend a case study competition organised by the Society for Advancement of Management held in Orlando, Florida, all expenses paid for by the university.

"I would say America is still definitely that land of opportunities. Although I went there in 2008, at the heart of the economic recession we barely felt it as the educational field receives so much of funding and money. There is a lot of funding available for research; it's just up to you to make the most of it. The party culture that one hears so much about also exists, but at the same time there are also a lot of avenues one can take and by getting close to the professors who are incredibly helpful, one can make the most of them," he said.

The graduate also praised the American education system calling it far more sophisticated than most, one that gives students the freedom to explore different subjects, which was how Shafak ended up conducting his research in gender studies which has now given him the opportunity to attend the Cambridge Business and Economic Conference (CBEC) in the UK in August. The student, who once held no aspirations of going to university, now looks forward to doing his masters in the near future.
"I recall the time when I last met Uncle D and Aunty Priyanthi before I left to USA. Uncle D said 'No one would come knocking at your door if you miss a class, you should be focused and get your priorities straight,'" he remembered fondly.

Padmasena Dissanayake, while smiling at Shafak's recollection, added that most people shy away from higher education in the US, thinking that they would not be able to afford it, but assured that through various offers and scholarships it was affordable to practically anyone with enough drive and determination - Shafak Samsheer being a perfect example of this.

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