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DateLine Thursday, 12 June 2008

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Vindhya Panagoda breaks new ground in US:

Fostering local bonds and global links

Born in a small island and brought up in a secure family Vindhya Panagoda never dreamt to be away from her cosy, protective world. However, when life forced her and her husband away from parental love and a secure world, she managed to build a new world by connecting with others in that unknown territory.

Vindhya Panagoda

To build a social life, she sought out the international community in the Penn State in the US and now devotes her time to making other internationals feel at home in a strange land.

"When I arrived in State College in the US more than three years ago, I didn't know anyone in the area except my husband," she reminiscenced. Gradually she overcame that unfamiliarity while forming a secure world with the help of other nationals who were missing home and emotionally stranded in the US.

Panagoda, 32, perceived the change by settling in this unknown continent positively. She took the first step by volunteering for Global Connections, a non-profit organisation affiliated with Penn State and the Centre County United Way.

The Lankan's mission is to promote international cultural exchange in the US. In addition to doing clerical work in the agency's office on the Penn State campus, she helps coordinate a number of programmes, including cultural luncheons, the International Children's Festival and the Tax Assistance Programme.

"Basically, when they need me, I'm here to help them," she said. "She's just an integral part of our organisation," said Merrill David, executive director of the organisation. "It's hard to find volunteers who are that committed and reliable and responsible."

Panagoda came to the US in February 2005 with her husband, Malika Kumarasiri, a doctoral student in chemistry at Penn State. "It was the first time I had travelled to a foreign country," she said. We had a hard time finding people to speak with about common things," she said.

Panagoda has a Bachelor's Degree in History from the University of Colombo and worked as an elementary teacher for almost two years. "I quit my job after I wed and left Sri Lanka in 2005 to join my husband doing his Ph.D. in the United States," she said.

After her husband completes his degree within the next year and they move to wherever he finds a job, she plans to enrol in a graduate education programme. She currently volunteers at Penn State's Bennett Family Centre to learn about the US education system.

Kumarasiri had received information about Global Connections through e-mail, she said, which he passed along to her. After talking with David, Panagoda was recruited to help with World Sounds at Noon, an international music concert held weekly at Schlow Centre Region Library.

Panagoda said she joined the Conversation Partners Programme at Global Connections to improve her English. The programme matches native speakers of English with non-native speakers on campus and in the community for language practice and cultural exchange.

"Here you have the university and the community," Panagoda said. "I think this is a bridge to interact the community and the university." Panagoda's situation helps her relate to the people she helps, she said.

"As an international, when they're asking questions, I can imagine what they're asking because I'm an international, too," she said. A lot of Penn State international students' spouses volunteer with Global Connections, David said.

Because of their visa status, she added, they are not allowed to work in the US and often grow bored and lonely. "These are very well-educated people who have careers in their own countries," she said. "Volunteering is a way for them to build a life for themselves here."

David said she is dreading the day when Panagoda departs Global Connections. "From the moment Vindhya came into our office, she was such an amazing gift to us," she said.

"I really don't know what we're going to do without her."

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