Business Times

Addressing the brain drain: To return or not?

By Sandani Samarajeewa

Unlike my previous visits, this time, the year-end trip to Sri Lanka served two purposes. One was the usual--to take a couple of weeks off of the busy research schedule from school. Two was the more important, a thought that crosses the minds of many of us Sri Lankans living abroad,--to decide whether to return to Sri Lanka upon completion of my doctorate degree in the US.

Being born and raised in Sri Lanka and having received 13 years of free education from grades 1 through 13 from government-funded schools, I have always felt the need to return. Not to simply establish a career and earn money, but more importantly, to give, as Sri Lanka has provided me with a high quality education for absolutely no cost—a concept that is non-existent beyond the borders of our beautiful island.

After completion of the GCE Advanced Level Examination, despite my being selected to physical sciences at Peradeniya, I chose to leave to the US to pursue my secondary level education, with the help of many generous scholarships through the university admissions overseas. Let me side track for a moment to reiterate what I truly mean by “high quality education”. When Sri Lankan students are placed in a class room in a university overseas, we generally compete against the Chinese, Indians, Americans, Koreans, British, Australians and many more. In most of our classes, specifically within the sciences, it is not an exaggeration to state that most of the Sri Lankan students excel beyond recognition, owing to the generous education that many of us have received entirely free of charge from our motherland. As much as I hate to admit, for me, free education was a pristine privilege that was taken for granted while residing in Sri Lanka.

Returning to the subject, in contrast to what I had witnessed within the past seven years during my visits to Sri Lanka, the country had undergone remarkable development within the past 2-3 years. An unarguable fact was that the civil war that had consumed the lives of many thousand Sri Lankans over 25 years had come to an end.

Possibly, as a result of post-war reconstruction, new roads were built; the Colombo-Galle trip that used to take over four hours of stressful driving had become a cakewalk with the construction of the Southern Expressway. The 18-elbow bends that used to ften require a tire change and breaks inspection by the time we reach Mahiyangana, had become an enjoyable scenic drive over the well-paved roads. The drive to the north-east of Sri Lanka that was a forbidden zone to many during the war had become a very popular tourist destination. One of the most challenging reverse-culture shocks that many of us experience when returning to Sri Lanka—the reckless driving habits, had significantly subsided possibly due to the presence of police officers at every bend, pedestrian-crossing and roundabout, waiting to fine the vehicles that cut the solid white line that separates the incoming traffic. All political criticisms aside, in my opinion, the country had started to show signs of development.

However, some interesting incidents that baffled me during my regular visits still remained unchanged: like the pedestrians that willingly threw themselves in front of moving vehicles the moment they saw their home-bound buses, the imaginary notion of “standing in line” to buy groceries or to get into a bus (that for a reason I never understood always pushed me to the very back of my fictional line), and the university students that refused to raise their hands and ask a question at the end of a lecture no matter how hard you beg them to do so. Nevertheless, these minor events aside, my mind was set to return to this miraculous heaven (regardless the opinions of many), because I believe in change, and I believe in being the change that I want to see.

Meanwhile, the A-Level results were released, and all hell broke loose. The incident took place just after Christmas when the much awaited results were finally posted with multiple rather obvious errors embedded within the final score sheet, spanning from incoherent district ranks to jumbled subject grades to a newly introduced version of (illogical) Z-scores—an unforgivable slap on the pristine education that I so proudly boast of. It was a tragedy for the 19-year olds who had put their blood, sweat and tears into one examination that in their minds determined their entire future. In contrast, it was an eventful playground for the political predators that insensitively hid the dust under the carpet. The innocent victims of this mishap could have cared less about who should resign from which position or the so called political-motives behind the “purposeful” error; all they wanted was justice, which was never served and sadly very unlikely that this would happen.

The A-Level results catastrophe was probably just one of many I accidentally happened to stumble upon one of them during my short stay in Sri Lanka. For an outsider like me who does not follow Sri Lankan politics closely, this was a rather shocking eye-opener that had brought me back to my dilemma. Utterly disappointed at my inability to do little to nothing to change the facts, with a broken heart and a puzzled mind, I reluctantly packed my bags to leave to the foreign land that I had come from. The question still remained unanswered, whether to return and fight with the rest of you, or to stay away and redefine “home”, away from home?

(The writer is a PhD student at Texas A&M University in Chemistry/ Nanoscience Department of Chemistry).

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