In pursuit of higher education, 17-year-old Nipuna Vidanapathirana traveled 9,371 miles from the island of Sri Lanka to Southern California in February of 2006.
To uproot, leaving family, friends and an expected lifestyle behind made the decision to study in the U.S. difficult, but he chose to answer opportunity’s call.
Now three years older and wiser since first stepping foot on American soil, the 21-year-old Vidanapathirana has grown accustomed to American culture.
He had studied English in Sri Lanka, and even received high enough marks on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam to earn a school scholarship.
As for immersing himself into a foreign land and culture, he did so easily.
“It’s a different culture here, but getting used to the culture and speaking to people in English was not a problem . it was actually fun,” he said. “I didn’t get a huge culture shock and I have many relatives here so it was easy for me to get used to it.
The driving pattern was basically the huge thing. I came to my cousin’s house from the airport and they were driving from the other side. In Sri Lanka, we drive from the left side.”
Reminiscing about life back in Sri Lanka lights up his face, from running around with friends to sharing deep conversations. However, not all memories brought about nostalgia.
What many Americans of this generation cannot even fathom, war on the home front, Vidanapathirana could hear its’ sounds from his bedroom.
An on-and-off civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group demanding for the creation of an independent state, terrorized the citizens of the country from 1983 to 2009.
“You never knew where bombs were going to explode, and they would go off at anytime,” he recalled. “Sometimes in banks and other populated places, suicide bombers would attack. I can remember the fires and reports coming from newspapers and the television.
“It was kind of crazy, but not on the level of Pakistan, where there were bombings all the time,” he said. “But to some level, the fear was there. We were taught to defend ourselves.”
Vidanapathirana noted the difference between America and Sri Lanka in terms of student-teacher relations.
“If a teacher walked in the classroom [back home], everyone stood up,” he said.
In Sri Lanka, anytime a student answers a teacher’s question, he or she is required to stand while speaking. In America, not so much, and Vidanapathirana realized it early on.
“I was doing it for a while and the instructor asked why I was doing that,” he said. “[The instructor] said, ‘You don’t have to do that, you can sit down.'”
As president of GCC’s International Students Association, Vidanapathirana and fellow cabinet members plan events for international students and try to accommodate them in any way possible. Past events have included trips to Knotts Berry Farm and SeaWorld.
International students voted him in as president last semester.
International Student Adviser Mariah Ribeiro was one of few counselors who suggested him to run for president.
“I [recommended him] because he was one of our most active students who showed a real interest in the activities and helped organize the program for the international students,” she said. “I thought he would be a good candidate.”
As for how she would rate his performance, she said, “I think he’s doing very well [partly because] he has a good personality and works well with students and advisers alike. And he just designed the logo for the International Students Association. He’s very involved, conscientious and a good representative of the students.”
Eugenia Hsieh, an international student from Argentina, added to this perspective.
“He’s very patient and listens to people,” she said. “He puts words into action. He also has experience, charisma and a friendly demeanor. He welcomes people.”
Adhering to his Buddhist upbringing, he cherishes the opportunity to help new students assimilate themselves into a foreign land.
“Being president is not a job, but rather it’s a volunteering service,” said Vidanapathirana. “And I like to do it. I’m a Buddhist, and it’s in our religion to help people.”
Other than studying, acting as president and spending time with friends and relatives, Vidanapathirana plays tennis and practices martial arts, activities he enjoyed back home in Sri Lanka.
“I would wake up early in the morning to attend school [in Sri Lanka], but after school was tennis and karate until 9 [p.m.],” he said.
Always ready for a game of tennis, he keeps a racket in the trunk of his car. Karate on the other hand, provides a whole sense of well-being.
“Karate is about discipline,” he explained. “It makes you a strong individual, spiritually, mentally and physically. I hardly get sick.”
Since embarking on his journey in America, his transformation has been strong yet subtle.
“I’m still the same person with the same psychology. I came here and kept the good things and left the bad things out,” he said.
“But some ideas I had before, ones that were immature, I no longer have,” he explained. “Little things such as watching cartoons have come to an end since I joined the real working world, where I work in an office and with other people.
“After becoming president, I had to go on stage and speak with other international students, and I believe that made me a stronger public speaker.”
While Sri Lanka’s literacy rate ranks among the more developed countries like the U.S., students face tremendous pressure when it comes to applying to universities. Controlled by the government, they are free but limited.
“Let’s say you’re a top student in Sri Lanka, you still won’t be able to get into the universities,” Vidanapathrina, 20, explained. “So what’s the point of doing all the hard work with little to no chance of getting in?
“It’s basically a waste. With the competition, I really didn’t want to take the examinations in Sri Lanka. I could’ve done it, but would’ve likely been disappointed.”
Now that he has experienced the life of an international student, nothing seems to be able to hinder him from achieving his goals, one of which is to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona to study aerospace engineering.
“If you work for it, then you can really get it,” he said. “I mean, I have everything I need but I just don’t go over the limit and am satisfied with it.”
Vidanapathirana may miss Sri Lanka’s weather, its culture, family and friends, but he believes he made the right decision to move to the U.S.
“Here, you can get an education and get a bachelor’s degree then do well with it,” he said.
“There’s so much freedom and so many opportunities. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at and what I have here.”
If Vidanapathirana could give advice to current and future international students, it would be capitalizing on the programs that GCC offers.
“Get along with people and try to go outside of your own culture. Don’t be afraid to talk,” he said. “Try to grow up within the college community and show your true colors.”
Advice that all students can heed.