Bringing Sri Lanka to Saint Mary's Through Virtual Immersion

Students Connect with Lasallian Partners Through Email, Videos and Skype

Ganote in Sri LankaThere are few students who wouldn't jump at the chance to study abroad. From Ireland to Ethiopia to Peru, Saint Mary's offers a rich variety of international January Term courses for those who've been bitten by the travel bug. But what about students who, due to scheduling conflicts, work commitments or financial reasons, cannot study abroad?

Enter "Community Engagement in Sri Lanka: A Virtual Immersion Experience," a course that allowed students to engross themselves in Sri Lankan culture and issues – through a combination of email, video and Skype chat – without ever leaving the Moraga campus. Students were able to connect with the community of Christian Brothers who teach at Saint Xavier's Boys' College near Mannar, Sri Lanka. But more than technology, what truly fueled this virtual immersion experience was a thirst for social justice. The purpose of           Ganote (right) and colleagues in Sri Lanka   thecourse was not simply to gain knowledge about a different culture but to give back
by creating English reading materials for Saint Xavier's students.

Social Justice Through Skype Sessions

Skype sessionProfessor Cynthia Ganote, who taught the class, visited Sri Lanka last year with two other SMC  community members and established strong friendships with the teachers, students and Brothers at Saint Xavier's. She fell in love with the country and the people, and wanted to share that experience with Saint Mary's. She began the class with a "cram course" on the social, political and economic context of Sri Lanka in the wake of 30 years of civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking groups in Sri Lanka. Students were then able to "put a face” on what they'd read, in the words of sophomore Rachel Alvarez.

The face in question was that of Brother Damian Nanayakkara, a Christian Brother with whom the class connected through Skype. During these sessions, Brother Damian's amiable countenance was projected onto the enormous screen in Galileo 114. Students approached the webcam in groups to pose questions. These question-and-answer sessions helped them gain a deeply personal account of the sociopolitical issues they had discussed in class, such as the pros and cons of colonialism and the role of women in Sri Lanka today.

"Since you're Sinhalese," one student asked, "did you feel any resentment against the Tamil during the uprising?"

Brother Damian said he had always been disturbed by the division. Echoing the inclusive impulse of our Lasallian community, he explained that he had both "Tamil and Sinhalese children” and “loved them all."

Other questions were designed to gauge what educational materials would interest Saint Xavier's students. What do kids in grades 6 to 8 do in their free time, and what do their teachers want them to learn? What type of music and movies do they enjoy?

The class was divided into groups, with each group dedicated to compiling a separate set of engaging materials to encourage the students at Saint Xavier's to play games, sing songs and perform plays and skits in English.

To compile the materials, the students watched videos of the children singing and playing, and struck up email pal friendships with some of the older students at Saint Xavier's. They also heard from Elizabeth Smith, vice president for College Communications at SMC, who had served alongside Ganote in Sri Lanka, and from Heidimarie Rambo, director of SMC’s program for ESL teachers, to get an idea of what the students might like.

Virtual Immersion, Real Outcomes                                    

Class membersBut why is it so important for these students to learn English?

It's "a ticket for further education, better jobs, better opportunities.” Ganote explained, and “a tool for [the students'] liberation." What’s more, the Brothers hope that the English language will serve as a unifying force for the Tamil and Sinhalese groups in Sri Lanka, neither of which speak the others' tongue. Teachers in Sri Lanka are constantly seeking new English-language songs, games, plays and news clippings to share with their students, materials they usually can’t access because of their limited internet access and frequent electrical shortages.

Ganote  warned the students in advance that the course would require extra work at odd hours because of time-zone differences between Moraga and Sri Lanka, but they were still motivated by a desire to be involved in a social justice project. Senior Tatiana Fuauu and freshman Kelsey Wong also credited Ganote for keeping them inspired. "She's so upbeat and energetic, no matter how everyone is feeling," Wong said, "She gets you excited about what you're reading."

The students hope that the songs, games, plays and poems they’ve collected will be as well received by the students at Saint Xavier's. Packaged with care into binders, the fruits of their labor will be taken to Sri Lanka by Ganote herself when she visits this summer, allowing her to personally train the teachers there to work with the new materials.

Saint Mary’s, too, may be looking forward to more “virtual immersion” classes. January Term Director Sue Fallis says the program is working with Ganote to see how this might be “the first of many endeavors.” Maybe sometime in the near future, we will travel to Ireland, Ethiopia or Peru, all from the comfort of our Moraga home.

By Indrani Sengupta '12

Photo by Emily Kratz '14