By Andres Feijoo (MPP ’13)
Every June, the Center For Social Value Creation and the Center for International Business Education and Research team up to provide a Sri Lanka half-internship volunteer consulting experience for University of Maryland MBA and MPP (Masters of Public Policy) candidates. Students spend two weeks on-site in Sri Lanka working with social impact clients, and ultimately deliver actionable recommendations to their clients as well as stakeholders including USAID, VEGA, and IESC.
After a two day journey half-way around the world that included a ten hour layover in London and a travel mishap that nearly stranded one of my classmates, I did not think I would have the energy to fully appreciate the experience of my first few days in Sri Lanka. So far this trip has exceeded my expectations.
After landing early afternoon, our 45 minute drive to the hotel immediately brought several things to my attention. One is the Buddha statues on nearly every street corner, adorned with flowers and candles. Second is the wild assortment of countless advertisements every town center has, all jammed together in a manner that makes differentiating them an eye straining exercise. In a post-conflict country, the massive number of business vying for consumer attention is impressive.
The Galle-Face hotel will be home for the first few days in country. Opened in 1862 during the Victorian era, the hotel has a definite British feel to it, with its ornate furniture comforting guests and elegant art work donning the walls of its hallways. While publicized as one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia that treated the likes of The Duke of Edinburgh Price Philip, Yuri Gregarin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Richard Nixon, to me it resembles the hotel from the movie The Shining: big, spacious, creaky old, certainly not cozy. Nonetheless, my room is comfortable enough to enjoy my first few days.
The exchange rate between the rupee and the dollar is generously favorable to us. After settling into our rooms, my classmate Caitlin and I ventured out in search of an ATM to take out spending money. Almost immediately we encountered strangers hustling us for money. Unlike my previous experience in Morocco where natives would explicitly ask for money or grab you to shop in their store, Sri Lankan panhandlers are more pleasantly deceiving. On several occasions they would suggest an ATM different from the one recommended by the hotel and bring us to a tuk-tuk – a kind of scooter taxi – owned by an acquaintance of theirs, hoping to earn a commission. New to the area, we almost fell for their charm when they warned us that our desired ATM only contained Indian rupees. Charm has its limits and luckily we knew better to trust our suspicions and avoid getting duped on our first day
Thursday we started our official schedule. After a morning briefing with Jamal, our helpful and extraordinarily courteous country director of VEGA, the organization overseeing our consultancy work, we visited PIM, the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, Sri Lanka’s finest business management school for current professionals. Similar to an executive MBA program, the school only teaches part-time students who currently work in a variety of areas, all seeking to supplement their education with management skills they hope will one day translate into better, higher paying job opportunities.
I sat in one of the classes, business law, and noticed some differences between American and Sri Lankan classroom instruction. The biggest was the classroom relationship between the students and the professor. Whereas American universities strongly emphasize classroom participation, there was a palpable reticence from students towards the professor’s assertions. While the professor urged students to offer ideas and ask questions, very few braved to do so. The reason why is hard to pinpoint. The enormous restraint is not so much respect but, I believe, fear that need for clarification or desire to challenge what is being taught would be seen as dangerously confronting authority. In my opinion, sitting through class without interactive dialogue does not equal an enriching learning environment, but several students I spoke with after class expressed their appreciation of the opportunity they were given to study at such a reputable institution.
The next day will make me forever appreciate what goes into the next t-shirt I buy. We toured a factory 2 hours east of Colombo that manufactures cloth for apparel companies that then turn it into clothing. The process of turning a roll of unadulterated cotton into the soft, thin texture needed for garment production is highly capital intensive. In a complex the size of several football fields, blast-wall thick rolls of raw cloth are pressed, doused, steamed, and dyed along a series of gigantic machines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, stripping away any impurities that would make subsequent stitching and sewing difficult. I was impressed with how efficient the whole operation seemed to be not only with the material production process but with how the company handles excess waste in an environmentally conscious way.
Saturday was an off day for sightseeing. In the morning my group toured an elephant orphanage 1 ½ hours northeast of Colombo. The park is home to at least four dozen elephants of all ages and sizes. Elephants are beautiful animals, much smarter than one imagines. The dexterity of their trunks is remarkable, as I saw when I fed one of them fruit. Using the trunk as a claw, the elephant used his snout to snatch the fruit from my hands like a vacuum cleaner. It appeared they were treated well by the park staff.
In the afternoon we visited the Buddhist shrine of the Ancient Tooth Relic in Kandy, near the center of the country. Supposedly one of Buddha’s teeth is enshrined and Buddhists from all over the world visit the temple. Walking with shoes off was challenging given the floors were stone. But the shrine’s ornateness and stunning artwork demonstrated the Buddhists’ devotion to their faith.
Now it’s one long journey back to Colombo for our last day before we venture off to our work sites. These first few days have been a fantastic introduction to the country. I cannot wait to experience more of Sri Lanka!
Andres Feijoo is an MPP ’14 Candidate at the School of Public Policy and is currently consulting for the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee.