Achini (Wijesinghe) Eranda '08
I credit everything I am today to my UWC experience. WIthout the two years at UWCSEA as my foundation, I would not be who I am today. I am a gender and inclusion specialist, helping organisations ensure their projects and their work is equitable to all and inclusive for vulnerable populations such as women, children or people with disabilities.
I attended UWCSEA as a border, living in Senior House as the National Committee student from Sri Lanka. When I graduated in 2008 I wanted to take a gap year to see what the real world was like, and put my UWC ideals into action. So I went back to Sri Lanka and worked for the National Child Protection Authority, assisting with a number of government projects. I decided I had found my calling, to work with children and women to help vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka. After my gap year, I went to Colorado College in the US on a Davis UWC scholarship, and took classes in psychology, sociology, sustainability and gender studies, graduating in 2013. I followed that up by doing my optional practical training in the US for a year, as a community organiser with people with disabilities. That involved working with people to find solutions to their problems, such as accessibility in public spaces or looking at public transport options.
After this, I returned to Sri Lanka to do my Masters in Sociology and have been working with non-profits since then. I returned to Sri Lanka because the skills I had were applicable to development issues and the rights of vulnerable people, and there was no shortage of those in my home country. First I worked with the UN Population Fund on policy-level solutions, but I then moved to work with grassroots populations as I wanted to see firsthand how those policies affected the lives of the people they were for. I have also worked with people with disabilities, children, and led a centre for sexual abuse survivors.
I became involved with the Sri Lankan UWC National Committee several years ago, helping to inspire new students to be involved in UWC. I enjoyed being able to ‘pay it back’ by being Head of Selections in 2017-2018. We were so proud to have 400% increase in applications last year, and we sent five students on scholarships all over the world last year, including one on a refugee scholarship to Atlantic College which was facilitated by UWCSEA.
I was not very exposed to international life before coming to UWC and everyone I knew up to then had the same thoughts, beliefs and experiences. Coming here , I was challenged to look at things differently and learn new perspectives from my peers. I took classes with vastly experienced teachers who encouraged us to find practical solutions. Learning geography, for example, by looking at problems in society, and even everyday conversations in the cafeteria all contributed to my world view; I credit everything I am today with my two-year foundation at a UWC.
When I first arrived, I was quite timid. Having learned English as a subject I understood the grammar but had not had much practice in speaking and listening at home. To be honest, I found it very difficult. In fact, I remember I went to Mr Morley and asked to move to an easier English course. He encouraged me to stick with it for six months and see how daily practice would help me improve; just like learning a musical instrument. He encouraged me to stick with it, and so I did. I ended up getting a good grade and surprised myself - and my English teacher I think! And now, even today every time I face a challenge, I think back to that and it helps me persevere.
When I arrived, I had a very fixed way of thinking - take the war, the racial conflict in my country as an example. I came here thinking I knew which side was right and which side was wrong, things were very black and white to me. I was convinced I was right because that was what I had been told back at home. At first, I was really defensive of my view. But living with students from all over the world and having conversations about these issues all the time, I gradually learned there is no one way to look at things. I learned that wars generally don’t have one right side and one wrong side. That there is always another side to the story. That’s not to say everyone is always right. People can hold an opinion, but the moment that opinion starts to affect someone else negatively, then we have a responsibility to say something.
UWC’s biggest influence on me was learning to look at things from other people's perspectives. Making a profit is not your life's purpose, its to do something to make other peoples lives better. To me, a better world is a place where people are treated equally, regardless of their background and where everyone can have the opportunity to access the same resources.