Dr.Harsha and Deviyani de Silva with Rachel Davis visiting Alma Mater Truman State University in Missouri.
When Dissa asked me if I could contribute a small piece on the tenth anniversary of the American university placement agency that he and Priyanthi run, I immediately said yes. Even though with my rather hectic schedule it took me three months, here I am, getting down to it sitting in a hotel room in Philadelphia overlooking one of the finest academic institutions of America, the University of Pennsylvania.
I must begin by acknowledging that Priyanthi and Dissa have created a game changer with Scholarships of USA. While respecting the choice of youngsters and their parents to attend university in Sri Lanka, hundreds of talented students who would otherwise not have had the privilege to attend university in America due to high costs, might I add both real and perceived, have not only entered some of the most prestigious academies of higher learning in the world via the Dissanayake enterprise but also found significant financial support to pursue their dreams.
The wonder of the Dissanayake strategy is that it appeals to clever local students across the board as much as it does to a wide range of American universities that are on the lookout for such talent. I found interesting the diversity of institutions Scholarships for USA represents. Take Bates College in Lewistown, Maine for example. It is one of the top private liberal arts colleges in the country in the prestigious group of colleges known as the little Ivies that include Williams, Amherst, Hamilton, Colby and Swarthmore among a few others. For some of the brightest youngsters I presume it will be possible to dream of such an exclusive experience at this small 1,700 student residential and beautiful campus at a fraction of the US$ 55,000 per year cost of attendance. On the other hand take Lake Region State College, at Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Unheard of, my research showed that this is a two-year college that prepares students to move on to either University of North Dakota or North Dakota State University to complete their bachelors degree at an affordable cost of US$ 12,500 per year without any scholarship that the Dissanayakes maybe able to get. And in between are some really amazing colleges and universities that are highly attractive for any bright young boy or girl coming out of advanced levels; be it from Ananda College in Colombo, Vembadi Girls High School in Jaffna or the Colombo International School. One such college is the 6,000-student Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri; the US News and World Report’s top ranked public university of the Midwest, and incidentally where I spent my undergraduate years long before the Dissanayakes set up shop. Another is the 40,000-student University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio; a large public urban university campus ranked one of America’s top 25 public research universities by the National Science Foundation. Yet another is the 10,000-student Case Western Reserve University. This highly respected private world class research university is ranked among the top 10 biomedical research universities along with John Hopkins, Duke, MIT and University of Pennsylvania by the US News and World Report. While these universities typically costs anywhere between US$ 20,000 to US$ 35,000 if public or in the US$ 50,000 range if private, the Dissanayakes I am sure could make them affordable for the right student.\
Not having known the Dissanayakes personally (even though I later found out they were related to my wife) I had followed their progress in the media. What I read continued to amaze me and I was convinced that this husband-and-wife duo was sincere in their purpose. Having figured out the hard way the winning equation connecting the supply of bright Sri Lankan students and the demand for such talent at international student offices of American universities while placing their own daughter in 2001, Priyanthi and Dissa had done no other parent had thought of before. Instead of keeping the successful formula to themselves they had started a venture to match that supply and demand, as far as possible, to borrow an economics term, within the budget constraint. I am sure the 150 students who benefited from this venture in the last 10 years from all across the island from both wealthy and modest backgrounds would vouch for the tremendous support they got from the Dissanayakes in their own success.
In fact what the Dissanayakes are doing is nothing special from a procedural perspective. But it is absolutely extra-ordinary from the perspective of the student and parents who know very little about all the procedure; and in America, unlike in Sri Lanka procedure is critical and designed to help students get in, not be shut out. So what Priyanthi and Dissa have done is to light up the previously dark road of procedure to guide the youngsters along the most efficient and affordable route to a wonderful and life-changing experience.
I am also aware that the Dissanayakes have played a very important role in increasing the SAT and GRE testing opportunities in Sri Lanka and that they are now fighting hard to get the recognition the local advanced level examination it deserves in order for those who have completed that exam to obtain college credit in the US. The success of these efforts will be tremendous in that it could effectively shorten the duration of an undergraduate program in the US and make it possible for even more students. I wish them success on that front and urge all to support this cause.
It goes without saying that I wish Priyanthi and Dissa all success in the years ahead. Their success is obviously tied to the success of the youngsters who would proceed to America to attend college. Like I said, Scholarships for USA are a game changer. Looking out of my window where an important global colloquium is just about to begin with the participation of heads of all top universities of the world with Ban Ki-moon in the Chair, I believe the day the Dissanayakes send a smart rural kid to the Wharton School of Business here at Penn is not far away. Let it be their short term challenge!
Dr.Harsha de Silva
In Philadelphia, one of the many stops in the Eisenhower Fellowship