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Today’s Five-Year Update will be different from the usual because I’ve written it, with details and fact-checking provided by its subject, Manjula Dissanayake, F12.  Back in the spring of 2012, I had long heard about Manjula but I hadn’t actually met him until Kristen and I were staked out in the Hall of Flags one day, snagging students as they went by.  After that, Manjula and I chatted about putting together a post about his path through Fletcher.  Inspired by that experience, I launched the “Student Stories” feature, and included Manjula (then an alumnus) in the mix.

Since his 2012 gradation, Manjula and I have been in semi-regular contact and he’s been kind to include me on his busy schedule when he’s been in the area.  I’ve remained inspired by him and his work.  (Plus, he’s just a very nice guy.)  Today’s post will extend his story from that very first post to this point, five-plus years after his graduation.

While at Fletcher, at the same time as he pursued the standard MALD collection of courses, Manjula also pushed forward the organization he had founded before starting his graduate studies, Educate Lanka, by pursuing business competitions at Tufts University and elsewhere in the Boston area, resulting in funding and mentoring opportunities.  The mission of Educate Lanka is:
“To empower the socioeconomically marginalized children and youth” of Sri Lanka “with enhanced access to quality and equitable education, learning, and employment opportunities,” with a vision of “a Sri Lanka and a world in which opportunities are universal for all.”
This was a natural fit to earn support from the Fletcher community, and Professor Kim Wilson, Dean Bhaskar Chakravorti, and Professor John Hammock are still on the Educate Lanka Board of Advisors.

After Manjula graduated, he returned to the Washington, DC area and to running Educate Lanka full-time.  Each time he and I got together, what was always clear was how challenging it was to build sustainability for the organization.  Educate Lanka was successfully sponsoring students’ education through its unique online platform, but working capital and growth investments were seemingly raised dollar by dollar.  Then, in 2015, a game-changer: Educate Lanka received a Mastercard Foundation Management Grant of $250,000 (facilitated from the foundation side by Reeta Roy, F89), providing the funding stability that Manjula needed to be able to think strategically about Educate Lanka and its mission.  The organization has continued to grow and mature.

Beyond financial stability, the investment from the Mastercard Foundation allowed Educate Lanka to introduce a new social-private partnership model in Sri Lanka (in addition to and to complement the student sponsorship platform), involving major corporate/employer partners such as Deutsche Bank, Mastercard, and SyscoLabs to address the youth skills and exposure gap, making Educate Lanka students more skilled and employable and creating a pathway for an equitable, empathic, and inclusive society.  This video describes the partnership with Sysco Labs (formerly known as Cake Labs).

 

Along the way, Manjula’s work has attracted significant attention.  He was profiled by his undergraduate college, and the Sri Lankan Sunday Times.  He was selected for the Top 99 Under 33 Global Foreign Policy Leaders List; was given the Outstanding Sri Lanka Young Professional Award; was named an American Express Emerging Innovator in the U.S.; and was the winner of Millennial Impact Challenge by Huffington post.  Most recently, Manjula was a member of the U.S. delegation of entrepreneurs who attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in November 2017 in Hyderabad and he recently completed his first executive education program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Manjula has also shared his perspective on educating the poor and on international education through his own writing, for the Diplomatic Courier (Future of Work and Global Talent and Non-Profits have Turned a Corner; Philanthropy should Follow) and for the HuffPost, as well as through a TEDx Talk.

Of course, as important as Manjula’s personal achievements are the successes of Educate Lanka.  Since its founding in 2007, Educate Lanka has achieved these milestones:

  • 1200+ students (ages 13-25; 65% female, 35% male) directly supported across 28 communities in all nine Sri Lankan provinces, from all ethnicities and religions;
  • 4500+ years of education funded
  • $500,000+ (around 70 million rupees) in micro-scholarship financing;
  • 450+ alumni with gainful employment.
  • 15 corporate and institutional partnerships
  • 250+ students trained on skills, competencies, and values

This story details an Educate Lanka success, as well as the complexity of the Sri Lankan education system.  It’s the first entry in a “Scholar Stories Series” to highlight the partnership with Mastercard on female empowerment in Sri Lanka.  (Links to future stories will also appear on Educate Lanka’s Facebook page.)

Educate Lanka has also created a global education program (under the private-social partnership model mentioned above).  Among the partners is the St. Mark’s School, right nearby in central Massachusetts, which invites Educate Lanka students to the U.S. every year for its Global Citizenship Institute. (Manjula is a guest lecturer in the program, and the students last year were hosted by the Sri Lankan ambassador to the U.S.)

As for the next five years, Manjula told me, “I plan to focus the next five years on scaling the two interventions (the online sponsorship platform and the social-private partnership model) towards full sustainability and replication. This phase will position me to achieve my long-term goal of reshaping Sri Lanka’s education into a more inclusive, equitable, and relevant system that is capable of producing a workforce and citizenry that could meet the demands and obligations of our future.”

Whew!  Even for five years, that’s a long list of accomplishments and serious ambition.  I hope it’s clear why admire Manjula.  But I’d be giving a misleading impression if I didn’t note that Manjula’s past five years have included the usual post-Fletcher milestones, such as marriage and the addition to the family of an adorable boy, along with active involvement in a DC-area cricket league.

Manjula was a rock star in the Fletcher community and he has nurtured one of the most dynamic organizations with Fletcher roots.  I’ll certainly be staying tuned to Educate Lanka news so that I can follow its, and Manjula’s success.

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Today’s update from the Class of 2012 is special in many ways.  First, it has been written jointly by two MALD graduates, Aaron Morris and Ho-Ming So Denduangrudee.  Second, Ho-Ming sent it along only a few days after bringing a new baby into their family.  Third, Ho-Ming and Aaron make up one of the first Fletcher Couples I featured on the blog.  Finally, as a first-year student, Ho-Ming wrote about her long path to Fletcher.

Pre-Fletcher

Similar to a lot of future Fletcher classmates, it turns out we lived and worked at random places at the same time: Boston, post-undergrad where Aaron worked in investment consulting and Ho-Ming worked as a research assistant and at a climbing gym; Thailand, where Aaron worked on the Thai-Burmese border with former political prisoners on advocacy projects, and Ho-Ming worked on indigenous rights and community development projects across the region; and Colorado, where Aaron valeted cars and ski bummed, and Ho-Ming worked for a small human rights defenders fund.  Aaron knew he wanted to contribute to bridging the business and international development worlds, and Ho-Ming was interested in minority rights.

At Fletcher

We met on the first day of orientation and were on seemingly different tracks: Aaron was a development economics/security studies MALD and eventually became an advisee of Professor Block; Ho-Ming went to Fletcher to study human rights with Professor Hannum, who had previously taught one of her early mentors at the UN.  At Fletcher, we were constantly challenged to work on and be exposed to topics beyond the scope of our respective foci, whether by each other or by our peers, professors, the curriculum, or the institution.  We quickly learned there are no silos in our interrelated world, and a Fletcher education continually underscores this.  Some horizon-broadening moments were more trying than others — for instance, that semester when Aaron convinced Ho-Ming that taking Professor Jacque’s Corporate Finance class would be a great idea.  It is a great idea.  There may be some tears and terror alongside learning, but it is worth it.  (Opposite of a pro tip: if you actively try to avoid eye contact, rest assured, Professor Jacques will call on you.)

Post Fletcher

After graduation, Aaron took a job in Jakarta with the ASEAN basketball league in business development and strategy, and Ho-Ming signed on to work on indigenous rights and sustainable development as part of a United Nations forestry initiative.  In four wonderful years in Indonesia, Aaron ended up taking a job as a management consultant at Bain & Co., and Ho-Ming returned to community-based work through the Samdhana Institute.

Our Fletcher roots continue to manifest throughout our careers and lives.  While Ho-Ming was at the UN, Professor Moomaw facilitated key introductions to support the Government of Indonesia delegation during global climate change COPs, Fletcher alumni and students joined us as colleagues at various moments in our respective careers, alumni were generous with sharing their networks and many became close friends.  We even managed to expand the community in a small way, when a dear colleague and friend opted to attend Fletcher for a mid-career MA.  We were fortunate to be able to attend his graduation in Medford, which coincided with our five year reunion.

We are currently located in San Francisco, prompted by an internal transfer opportunity through Aaron’s work.  Ho-Ming has kept a foot in Southeast Asia, building fun partnerships, including this one one linking the outdoor industry, climbing, and an incredible indigenous activist/regional MP to pilot ecotourism and support indigenous tenure security in remote Eastern Indonesia.  She’s recently taken on a new position strengthening institutional partnerships at Build Change, a social enterprise focused on enhancing disaster resilience and recovery for low income neighborhoods in emerging markets.

Fletcher expanded our horizons and imbued in us a truly interconnected perspective on the world.  On the macro policy and industry level, this has been invaluable.  On a civic and personal level, particularly in divisive times, we are grateful that Fletcher taught us — above all — to listen and always be mindful of a bigger picture.  We might not always agree, but Fletcher has emphasized to us the importance of trying to understand.  As partners, as parents, we strive to serve as resources for each other and, we hope, a wider community that bridges industries, nationalities, and worldviews.  At Fletcher, we were given the tools to foster similarities that drive all of us, to strengthen the connections between us and, not least, to be thoughtful and reflective — to engage and look for ways to be inclusive, share responsibilities. and be thoughtful about how we can create a better world.

It has been a while since the blog featured a Five-Year Update, and I’m excited to kick off the profiles from the Class of 2012 — a group that seems especially full of wonderful people.  I’m extra pleased that the first of these posts comes from Vanessa Vidal Castellanos, whom I interviewed for her MALD application in 2011 and I’ve been in contact with ever since.  Vanessa is currently serving as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  When she was a student, she appeared in the Admissions Blog before running in the Boston Marathon.

This Five-Year Update is written from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I have been since September 11, 2017 — such an important date for many around the globe.  As I booked my travel to permanently change stations, the travel agent hesitantly asked:  “Are you sure you want to travel from the United States to Saudi Arabia on September 11?”  Honestly, the significance of that date hadn’t crossed my mind.  I thought back to exactly five years earlier when I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States of America on September 11, 2012.  That day, as I prepared to introduce our speaker before the swearing-in ceremony for the new Foreign Service officers like me, I choked and contained tears while watching on television as then President Obama and the Secretary of State received the bodies of those who had been killed in service in Benghazi, Libya.  It was at that moment that I realized how honored and proud I was to be joining the diplomatic corps of the United States.

My diplomatic career began after my admissions interview to The Fletcher School, which is when I first considered the U.S. Foreign Service.  I knew I wanted to work in public service, but also knew something was missing from most of the jobs I had heard of, and that was the international component.  Thanks to Jessica, who encouraged me to apply for the Pickering Fellowship after my admissions interview, I became a Pickering Fellow.  After graduating from Fletcher, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service — exactly the career I had dreamt of, I just didn’t know the name for it.  I went on to complete an internship at the operations center in Washington, DC, covering East Asia and the Pacific, but in tune with everything that was happening in the world.  I remember every day was something new, and briefing high-level officials as an intern was nerve-racking to say the least.  I questioned if I would be able to fulfill my five-year contract as part of the Fellowship.

After serving in various capacities at U.S. embassies in Tunisia, Switzerland, Zambia, and now in Saudi Arabia, I understand and appreciate the value of diplomacy to create mutual understanding between the people and governments of different countries.  I absolutely love engaging the people of the host country, hearing about their needs and dreams, and finding ways the U.S. government can provide support.  I have always said the United States is not a perfect country, but we have tons to share and I am glad to have resources at hand that I can offer and that mutually benefit others and the United States.  It’s not always as easy as it sounds.  Sometimes perspectives are controversial.  However, having people-to-people conversations about those standpoints and then influencing U.S. foreign policy, even if only in the slightest, is reassuring.

There is no question that without my education at Fletcher — thorny and touchy discussions, mock chief of staff meetings, public diplomacy, negotiation simulations, and sample policy briefs — and the network of friends I built, I would not have this diplomatic career.  The Fletcher community at the Department is real and truly vibrant.  (I always had my doubts if it could live up to the hype, during the annual Fletcher D.C. networking events.)  I am grateful for my Fletcher experience and the international worldview it gave me; I could not imagine my life without it!

 

Check out Vanessa’s video, which the U.S. Embassy shared on its Facebook page.  It’s from a series in which Embassy staff share details about their home towns. 

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