Dressed in a pressed blue shirt and jeans with his meticulously styled hair, and speaking with a slight foreign accent, he looks like any other young Sri Lankan who has returned to Sri Lanka for the December holidays. His story begins too like most other young Sri Lankans living across the globe. He grew up [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Let’s give them all a chance to study

Manjula Dissanayake based in Washington D.C. can be proud of his many achievements; but among them his greatest would be Educate Lanka, an organisation which helps needy young Sri Lankan students to complete their education. Here he talks to Chathuri Dissanayake

Dressed in a pressed blue shirt and jeans with his meticulously styled hair, and speaking with a slight foreign accent, he looks like any other young Sri Lankan who has returned to Sri Lanka for the December holidays.

His story begins too like most other young Sri Lankans living across the globe. He grew up here, completed his local Advanced Level exams and then left home to study abroad, reading for a degree in finance and following it up with a Masters in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Make no mistake, the similarities end there. Manjula Dissanayake, now based in Washington D.C. is hardly your average Sri Lankan expatriate. At the age of 32, he was named in the 2013 international list of top young Global Influencers in Foreign Policy under the age 33 by the Diplomatic Courier magazine, a leading publication on global news and international affairs based in Washington, D.C. He was the first Sri Lankan to be picked to this list of global young leaders.

Last year, Manjula was also named as one of the top 15 Emerging Social Innovators in the U.S. by American Express and Ashoka, a nonprofit organisation supporting social entrepreneurship.

He also won the “Millennial Social Impact Challenge”, a U.S.-based social innovation competition run by The Huffington Post & IGNITEgood the same year.

But it’s not just these accolades that make him the extraordinary young man he is. It is his current work. Manjula is the brains behind Educate Lanka, an organisation which helps young Sri Lankan students from underprivileged backgrounds to obtain a good education.
Dedicating his time and energy to Educate Lanka, Manjula works fulltime to raise funds and develop the organisation and leads its team of volunteers. On his current visit to Sri Lanka, he has been working around the clock visiting different schools across the country to distribute the 2014 scholarships.

Distributing Educate Lanka scholarships in Mannar: 50 students were recipients

Set up and registered in the U. S. as a community enterprise, Educate Lanka Foundation currently funds the education of more than 600 students across Sri Lanka.

Founded in 2007, Educate Lanka has so far witnessed over 250 students graduate from universities or complete secondary education.
A scrupulous process is followed in selecting deserving students among hundreds of applicants for scholarships each year. They are then connected online with individual sponsors across the globe. The sponsors have the opportunity to select the students they want to sponsor, monitor their progress and communicate with them as well.

It all goes back to the tsunami in 2004, Manjula recollects. “My friend Hasika and I were involved in raising funds for the tsunami affected. It was then I realized that there were so many Sri Lankan expatriates living abroad who want to give back but had no organised way of doing so,” he explains.

Educate Lanka bridges this gap. The organisation provides a platform to connect deserving students with sponsors who can provide financial assistance.

“We have a unique model for peer-to-peer online connections where we connect people from all over the world with the students to provide the funding they need to go through education from whatever the level to complete their studies,” Manjula explains enthusiastically.

Educate Lanka has sponsors from across the globe. The profile of sponsors is diverse, young and old, from all ethnicities, including some well known individuals. “It gives new meaning to the word diaspora,” says Manjula.

Like many other great ideas, Educate Lanka is founded on goodwill and dedication. Manjula recalls that it was five friends who got together to create the organisation.

Among them, they developed the platform on which the organization now runs. “We started in 2007 with 25 students from the Kandy and Kurunegala districts. The first sponsors were from our close friend circles. Then it spread through word of mouth among the Sri Lankan diaspora in the U.S. With that some people who were involved initially took a bigger role in fundraising, or communication or managing the volunteers. So we had about a 20- member core team after about two years. We also had these ad hoc volunteers who would come and help us with fundraisers. We did a large talent show in Washington D.C. in 2007 as a fundraiser and that was the first big marketing drive for sponsorships.”

At present, Educate Lanka has volunteer groups fundraising in different cities from California to London, Melbourne and Sri Lanka, a network of over 100 volunteers. The volunteer base is now being organized and incorporated into the structure of Educate Lanka.
2014 is a big year for Educate Lanka with aims of increasing the number of scholarships and developing the skills of their students.
“We plan to also introduce a few innovative ideas and platforms for education and employability through local employer partnerships,” says Manjula adding that ground work is being done to establish partnerships with Sri Lankan corporates and employers to enhance the skills and employability of the students.

“We are offering a platform for them to provide the necessary skills to fill that gap, so that graduates are not only academically qualified but are also equipped with the right skills,” he says.

“We have initial interest from a couple of corporates and we want to do sort of a pilot and take it to many more private partners and get them interested in collaborating with us to provide that to the students, the future employees.”

Manjula’s efforts through Educate Lanka over the past few years have been internationally recognised and honoured by many organisations including the UN, USAID, Clinton Global Initiative as well as academic institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Tufts.

Jehan: Inspired by Manjula to team up

An ardent supporter of Educate Lanka and now a sponsor himself, Jehan Ratnatunga, Sri Lanka’s golden child on Youtube says it was Manjula’s Sri Lankan charm that initially convinced him to get involved.

“Also, I’m a big believer in supporting education access, it’s an area where support is a “hand up, not a hand out”. Finally, and probably most importantly to me, it was the fact that you could sponsor a student online. I have not seen a lot of non-profits in Sri Lanka that embrace the internet as well as Educate Lanka. I love the idea that Sri Lankans around the world can get involved, that even though we are scattered around the world, we can unite. So a powerful cause and the reach of online, plus Manjula’s charm; that’s what inspired me!”Jehan said in an email to the Sunday Times,

Like many of Educate Lanka’s sponsors, Jehan got involved after he was introduced to Manjula through a friend. So what is it about Manjula that draws people?

The face of dedication: Manjula Dissanayake. Pic by Indika Handuwala

He is a “top fellow, a superb chap” says Jehan, adding in true Jehan style that he is “claaaaass”. “What he and Educate Lanka are doing is truly amazing – and so much of it is hinged on Manjula’s passion and drive. It’s inspiring to see somebody who can bring an idea to life the way he has. That’s an important lesson to others – especially the young people who have great ideas, please make them happen!

Jehan has helped the Educate Lanka cause whenever possible. “I promote Educate Lanka whenever I can, for example I recently shared a thank you letter that the student I sponsored sent me. I posted it on my Facebook page and invited others to sponsor a student too and Manjula called me and told me that Educate Lanka had a huge increase in sponsors! So much so that it crashed their servers! We have plans for a few things this year, so keep an eye out. I hope we can all crash the servers many more times! GO LANKA!”
Jehan has become a brand ambassador for Educate Lanka from 2014.

Buy a ticket and do your bit too

Educate Lanka’s inaugural charity walk “Educate Lanka – Walk for a Cause” will take place next Sunday, January 19. The walk starting from Independence Square at 8.30 a.m. will end at the CR & FC Grounds.

Manjula hopes that this would give them an opportunity to not only raise funds, but also to raise awareness and enlist volunteers for their work.

Participants can donate to Educate Lanka by buying a ticket. It costs Rs. 1000, to educate a child for a month.
For more information, see: www.educatelanka.org

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