Sri Lankan environmentalist encourages local community to practice environmental stewardship during visit to Elon

By Kellye Coleman

For the past month, Chamindha Mahanayakage, Sri Lankan field environmentalist and photographer, has had the opportunity to share his passion for the environment and his country with the Elon University community and beyond.

Visiting the United States as the Elon Periclean Scholar in Residence, Mahanayakage has given the local community a unique look at Sri Lanka, a small island nation off the coast of India, and has inspired local students to practice environmental stewardship.

Students from the Seetha Eliya School in Sri Lanka hold bags from the Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum (LEAF), the summit hosted by the University of Colombo in January and coordinated by the Periclean Scholars.

The Elon Periclean Scholars class of 2011 has been contributing to environmental education programs in Sri Lanka. It was during a trip to the country this January that they met Mahanayakage, who served as their tour guide and translator, and was an asset to the group.

“Chamindha was a really good person to have with us,” said Elizabeth Leman, a senior scholar. “He knew everything that was going on and provided cultural expertise.”

Crista Aranagala, Elon professor and Periclean Scholars adviser, hopes the month-long trip marked the beginning of what will be a long-term relationship between Mahanayakage and the Periclean Program.

“I personally am looking at our partnerships in Sri Lanka in a different perspective and definitely more long term,” she said. To her, Mahanayakege’s visit “enriched our program by giving us a permanent contact in Sri Lanka that we can work with on our projects.”

Leman and the 2011 scholars have been sponsoring an environmental club, have created two pen pal programs between North Carolina and Sri Lankan schools and this January hosted a two-day environmental summit held at the University of Colombo.

The past month has given Mahanayakage the opportunity to return the favor, interacting with local students just as the scholars did in January. For him, working with young children is crucial. “Doing the environment in the schools is the best place because they are the young generation,” he said.

“Doing the environment in the schools is the best place because they are the young generation.” – Chamindha Mahanayakage

During the past few weeks, Mahanayakage visited Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill and Graham Middle School, introducing students to Sri Lanka and the importance of environmental care.

“Most of the time I talk about the beautiful wildlife of Sri Lanka, a little bit of heritage and culture,” he said.

Eighth-grade students at Graham Elementary have been participating in the Sri Lankan Panangala Mahabodhi pen pal program. Hearing Mahanayakage speak was a unique and inspiring opportunity.

Will Cox, an 8th-grade student who has been writing letters, said that his time with Chamindha reminded him to “not take a lot for granted as there is always somebody that is just trying to get by.”

Students were also inspired to respect the planet. “If we care for the environment it helps us connect with nature and where we get our food and how we live,” said Jack Parker, an eighth-grader and participant in the pen pal program.

Chamindha Mahanayakage discusses Sri Lankan ecotourism with a group of Elon students. Mahanayakage was the world’s first photographer to capture an image of the Horton Plains Slender Loris, an endangered mammal.

Mahanayakage also interacted with the Elon University community, speaking about his experiences with the Slender Loris Conservation Project and providing a fresh perspective on the environment and wildlife conservation.

For Leman, Mahanayakage’s visit speaks to Elon’s commitment to international and engaged learning. “Bringing that diversity of opinion can change your thinking about things, because it gives you such a different perspective that you wouldn’t have thought about,” she said.

For Arangala, it also served to inform the Elon community about the Periclean program and the projects she hopes will continue in the future. “Having Chamindha here brings new energy to our program,” she said. “I have had several students come to me who are interested in our program because they heard him speak.”

While in the states Mahanayakage had the opportunity to visit several regions of the U.S., from Niagara Falls to Chicago, but his interaction with the Elon community was the highlight of his time. “I like Elon a lot,” he said. “They are doing a good job, especially in the Periclean class. Most of the students are like my brothers and sisters.”

Arangala hopes the programs in Sri Lanka will continue to grow, and Mahanayakage believes that Elon students will continue to have an impact. “I think you have a lot of environment-friendly students,” he said. “They have a lot of good skills, and they want to do a lot of things.”

For more information on what the Periclean Scholars are doing in Sri Lanka, visit their website.

Originally published in the Burlington Times-News, April 23, 2011.

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