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Fulbright Student Advisory Centre comes to Mahinda College, Galle

As honorary Chairman of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, I am delighted to help inaugurate this collaborative venture between the Fulbright Commission and Mahinda College and its Old Boys’ Association, said US Ambassador Robert O. Blake when he opened a Fulbright Student Advisory Centre at Mahinda College, Galle on April 4.

The Ambassador said ‘this project will help those in the Southern Province who would like to study in the United States to receive expert advice and guidance from Commission Executive Director Tissa Jayatilaka and Student Advisor Nelum Senadira.


American Ambassador Robert O. Blake at the inauguration of Fulbright Students Advisory Centre, Mahinda College, Galle with Southern Province Governor Kumari Balasuriya at her official residence on the same day. - Picture by D.C. De Silva, Kahawa special correspodnet

He said it is always a treat for me to visit this important and lovely Southern City of Galle. Not many in our respective countries are aware that its ties with the United States actually goes back more than a century.

The first formal American presence in then Ceylon of an official US Government agency was here in Galle when we opened a commercial agency here in 1850 initially to service American shipping interests.

The Ambassador said we hired John Black, a Scottish merchant resident in Galle, to be the first American Commercial Agent in Ceylon.

The American Commercial Agency subsequently moved to Colombo in 1870 and continued there without interruption until the US opened a full Embassy when Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948.

The Sri Lankan-American relationship was really established thanks to the work of the American missionaries from New England,in the North-East of the United States, who arrived in Ceylon in the first-quarter of the 19th century.

He said, they took a special interest in educating the people of the North in both English and Tamil. Medical missionaries translated textbooks into Tamil.

One such missionary, Dr. Samuel Green, not only founded the Green Hospital in Manipay (pronounced MAN-i-PAH-RYI) but also translated portions of medical texts into the language of his students.

These missionaries also took many important steps to provide educational opportunities for women, a radical concept at the time. Mrs. Harriet Winslow, a great-great-grandmother of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, founded Uduvil Girls’ School in Jaffna in 1824. It was the first girls’ boarding school in the whole of Asia.

The Ambassador said, in later years the American interaction with the South of Sri Lanka began. It proved to be no less dramatic than, and as mutually rewarding as, the saga of the missionaries in the North.

Dr. Peebles, an American who happened to be in Sri Lanka when the famous ‘Panadura Debates’ between Buddhist Monks and Christian Clergy took place in 1873, was thoroughly impressed by the intellectual content of the debates.

He wrote eight articles on the debates titled “Buddhism and Christianity Face to Face,” which later reached the United States. The American nation had just gone through a terrible civil war from 1861 to 1865, as well as experiencing dislocations associated with industrialisation and immigration.

He said news of discoveries in science and new ideas of political and social development were swirling about in the Americas and Europe. It was a time when many Americans were beginning to question many of their own traditional value systems, beliefs and moral and ethical foundations.

In 1880, a remarkable man came to Sri Lanka - a Colonel who fought for the union (Northern) side of the Civil War from the small town of Orange, New Jersey. His name was Henry Steel Olcott. Unlike the Christian missionaries, Olcott came to Sri Lanka not in search of souls; not to convert, but to learn.

He also had read the “Panadura Debates”. He was studying various religions at the time and was on a quest to find out whether a new religion comprising all the best elements of human thinking could be formed. What Olcott and his associates ultimately formulated was called Theosophy. He formed a Theosophical Society and became its Secretary.

The Ambassador said, Olcott became one of the pioneering leaders of the Buddhist and nationalist revival movement in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, Olcott’s arrival marked a significant and memorable milestone in the nearly 200-year association of the peoples’ of our two countries. With him started an era of Buddhist renaissance. In him the Buddhists of Sri Lanka found a redoubtable champion. Of relevance and interest to all of you today are the contributions Olcott made to education.

In the course of his campaign to review Buddhism in Sri Lanka he observed first hand the lack of opportunities at that time for English education among the vast majority of Buddhists. He felt the need to match the excellent schools system that the American missionaries had established in the Northern Province and in the other provinces as well.

He said working in tandem with the great nationalist and religious leader Anagarika Dharmapala, Colonel Olcott helped establish Buddhist schools in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Kurunegala all of which have celebrated one hundred years of existence and have become leading schools in the country. Mahinda College, where we are gathered today, is also one of these schools.

It is only fitting, therefore, that the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission has come forward to work in collaboration with Mahinda College to further educational contact between Sri Lanka and the United States. The primary purpose of the Fulbright programme is the furtherance of mutual understanding between peoples.

The Ambassador said, the Fulbright Commission has used the two way educational exchange of Sri Lankan and American students and senior academic scholars to accomplish this purpose for more than 50 years in order to build an enduring relationship between the American and Sri Lankan people.

I am pleased to be a part of this pioneering effort of the Commission to reach out to the student community in the South. Until now the Commission has been confined to Colombo and Kandy. Today we are adding Galle and, with luck, perhaps elsewhere soon as well.

He said Tissa Jayatilaka tells me that it is the Commission’s intention to extend its services in a more tangible way than it does at present to the North and East of Sri Lanka as soon as it is feasible for it to do so. In closing, let me again commend this joint initiative of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission and Mahinda College on behalf of the students of the South and wish the enterprise the very best for the future.

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