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ISLE Program

ISLE Celebrates 25 Years

Story posted December 27, 2006

The Inter-Collegiate Sri Lanka Educational Program is celebrating its Silver Jubilee in 2007. President Barry and Karen Mills from Bowdoin College, joined by Bates Assistant Dean of Faculty Judy Head, Carleton Associate Dean of the College Beverly Nagel, Swarthmore Provost Connie Hungerford, Whitman Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn and Professors Hans Oberdieck (ISLE faculty director in 1987), Edmund Gilday (Chair, ISLE Faculty Board of Directors), John Holt (Consultant, Executive Committee the ISLE Faculty Board), and Sree Padma Holt (Administrative Director of ISLE) are traveling to Sri Lanka to celebrate this occasion.

The group – representing six of the ISLE consortium colleges – will arrive in Sri Lanka on January 5, where they will travel to Kandy and stay a hotel overlooking the Hantana tea gardens and the neighborhood of Dangolla, near the ISLE Center.

In the days following, the group will attend presentations by ISLE faculty on their coursework for the program, and each will stay for one night with one of the program’s generous home-stay families, so they may experience first-hand one of the most important aspects of the ISLE Program.

Arrangements have been made to visit the ICES (International Center for Ethnic Studies) office in Kandy, and the group will also be taken on a three-day tour to archeological sites in the North.

There will be a celebration lunch at the University of Peradeniya with current ISLE faculty and staff, along with former students, Wilhelm fellows, and former faculty and directors.

Current administrative director Sree Padma Holt expects about 100 people who have been involved with the program in various ways over the years to attend the Silver Jubilee luncheon.

It is fitting at this occasion to take a brief look at how the program started, has changed and came to be the program as it is now.

History of the program:

It all started in 1980 when five professors specializing in South Asian religions – John Strong from Bates, John Holt from Bowdoin, Bardwell Smith from Carleton, Yeager Hudson from Colby, and Lowell Bloss from Hobart William Smith – got together and discussed starting a study abroad program for undergraduate students in Sri Lanka with Buddhism as its focus. Sri Lanka is the home of the oldest continuous Buddhist civilization in South Asia. A year later the discussions took the shape of a constitutional draft by John Holt under the name of Inter-Collegiate Sri Lanka Educational (ISLE) Program. The other faculty colleagues representing their institutions approved the draft and the name for the Program. On behalf of Bowdoin College, Dean of the College Robert Wilhelm agreed that Bowdoin would be the agency college for the ISLE Program. Professor Bloss directed the first program in the fall of 1982 with 17 students recruited from the five member schools.

Several people helped to put together the Program in Sri Lanka. Prominent among them was Professor K. Jinadasa Perera, former Vice-Chancellor of Sri Jayewardenepura University, who was largely responsible for assembling the resources for the first program. The first program’s base was Colombo. The student group stayed in a guesthouse for two months in Bambalapitiya during which time the Professors at Sri Jaywardenapura gave lectures on various subjects. Ms. Kamini de Abrew, who was a Sinhala instructor at the US Embassy, Colombo, and who turned out to be a great asset to the Program for more than twenty years, taught Sinhala to the students. Former Governor of Maine, John Reid, who was then the American ambassador at the US embassy in Sri Lanka, was very supportive of ISLE’s initial efforts and originally recommended Ms. De Abrew to the ISLE Program.

After finishing their studies in Colombo, the student group was taken on a tour to the island for twelve days, including visits to Jaffna and Trincomalee. This was the first and last visit of the ISLE group to Jaffna. The civil war that started the following year between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil militant group in Jaffna made it unsafe for the ISLE students to return to this culturally fascinating city.

It was not until the later segments of the program that this first batch of students was brought to Kandy. In Kandy, students lived with faculty members of the University of Peradeniya. Professor Lily de Silva from the Dept. of Buddhist Studies, Peradeniya University, organized a month long course on the religious and cultural history of Sri Lanka. Professor de Silva and her colleagues from a variety of disciplines of the Faculty of Arts gave lectures during this time. Ms. De Abrew came to Kandy to continue her Sinhala instruction.

The ethnic riots of 1983 almost lead to the cancellation of the program in its second year. But thanks to all those who supported and worked for its survival, the program actually was able to send a second batch during that year. Ambassador Reid again stepped in to help. Prof. Holt, who led the second program, met with the ambassador and one of his political officers. By this time the US embassy had issued a travel warning to Sri Lanka for American citizens. Although Reid could not lift the warning, he personally telephoned Dean Wilhelm and told him that, as a parent and a private citizen of the US, he would be confident to send his own daughter to Sri Lanka to participate in the program. (Later, in 1993, Dean Wilhelm’s daughter, Kendra Wilhelm, also participated in the ISLE Program as a junior from Vassar College.)

The second program not only unfolded very well, but also set the trend for future programs by introducing important new components and structure. Prof. Holt went to Sri Lanka a few weeks before the second program began to make arrangements. At the urging of Peradeniya faculty, it was decided that the program needed affiliation with a good university that would provide necessary academic resources to students. Prof. Holt, in consultation with the Vice Chancellor B.L. Panditharatne at the University of Peradeniya, prepared an agreement of affiliation. Bowdoin’s Dean Wilhelm flew to Sri Lanka and signed the official agreement between the University and the ISLE Program.

Isle History

University of Peradeniya Vice Chancellor B.L. Panditharatne (seated left)
and Bowdoin Dean Robert Wilhelm (seated right) sign the official ISLE
agreement of affiliation. John Holt (standing, far left) and Ambassador John Reid
(standing, next to John Holt) observe.
Photo courtesy of US Embassy, Colombo

Through the Lions Club in Kandy, Holt setup host families for students. The students were picked up at the airport and were taken on an orientation tour to the south for a few days before they were brought to Kandy and eventually taken in by home-stay families. Holt organized a course on Buddhism with three faculty members from the university: Padmasiri de Silva from Philosophy, Lily de Silva from Buddhist Studies, and Leslie Gunawardena from History. At the end of the course, students were taken a tour to the north to visit archaeological sites.

The second course in the program was on social, economic and political History and was coordinated by Professor C. R. de Silva (C.R. de Silva is presently at Old Dominion University as Dean of Arts and Sciences). After the end of the course, students worked on their independent studies. What was common with the first and second programs and the programs in the following years was intensive Sinhala teaching under our dynamic language instructor Kamini de Abrew.

A year later in 1984, Swarthmore joined as a member institution. As per the affiliation agreement with the University of Peradeniya, for five years (from1984 through 1989) the program recruited undergraduate students from the university to study for a year each at ISLE member colleges.

Prof. Holt secured funds from the US Department of Education through the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad Program in 1987 and in 1993 to develop South Asian Studies curricula at ISLE member colleges. Twenty-four faculty participated in five-week long programs of study in Sri Lanka in those years. The programs consisted of seminars, tours, and individualized opportunities leading to research. Faculty from the University of Peradeniya offered lectures on subjects such as Philosophy and Religion, Women’s Studies, Politics etc. and some of them also accompanied the American faculty on a tour to various sites on the island to hold discussions.

When Dean Wilhelm left Bowdoin College in 1987, the program found it necessary to hire an administrator. Until this time, Holt served as chair of the Faculty Board of Directors and was handling administration in conjunction with the Dean’s office. In 1988, Ted Adams was hired as the first program administrator. By this time, the program was familiar enough with the resources at the University to introduce long term courses with various faculty teaching independent offerings in history, politics, Buddhism, literature and art.

The ISLE Program also had established itself financially by this time so that it was ready to help start a sister program in India. With funding from ISLE, the South India Term Abroad (SITA) was started in Madurai in 1990 with Ted Adams also as its administrator.

Holt and Adams secured another grant for the program from USIA from 1991-1996. This time the grant, a university affiliations grant, was to bring faculty from University of Peradeniya to the member colleges to contribute to south Asian curricula. Six faculty members were brought for a semester to each of our member colleges. Over the years, about 30 Peradeniya faculty have taught at the member colleges either on short term, for a semester, or for a year. Earlier, in 1984 and 1985, Holt had secured funds from the Asia Foundation to bring two Peradeniya faculty to teach at member colleges. The Fulbright Program also supported a number of Peradeniya faculty visits.

When Robert Wilhelm died suddenly in 1990, his wife, Leslie Wilhelm, decided that any gifts in her husband’s memory should be donated to the ISLE Program. The ISLE Program built up the Wilhelm Endowment, and in 1999 began funding two fellowships each for $1500 for two years for junior Peradeniya faculty members to pursue their graduate degrees. In 2007, the fellowship amount has increased to $3,000 per annum.

In 1996, when Adams decided to direct the SITA Program in Madurai, Sree Padma was asked to help the program with administration. Her help turned out to be more than temporary as Adams decided to leave the program when he returned to the US. This also marked the separation of ISLE with the SITA administratively. SITA moved to George Washington University while the ISLE stayed at its home institution.

In 1997, ISLE celebrated its successful completion of 15 years. Bowdoin President Robert Edwards was joined by Bates’ Dean, Martha Crunkleton, Carleton’s Dean Beth McKinsey and other faculty members from Bowdoin, Carleton, and Whitman who traveled to Sri Lanka to celebrate the occasion with the faculty and administration at the University of Peradeniya. On this occasion, President Edwards announced the commencement of ISLE Program Wilhelm Fellowships to the junior faculty at the University of Peradeniya.

By this time, Whitman College had joined the ISLE consortium as a member, replacing Hobart and William Smith. In 1999, two more institutions, Grinnell and the College of Holy Cross, joined ISLE making it an eight-member consortium of colleges.

With the increased membership, the student recruitment number has increased. There has been a steady range of student participants numbering between 18 and 24, bringing the program financially into good standing. But the situation has never been easy in Sri Lanka politically. With the civil war going on for the past 24 years, it has been challenging for the program, from its very inception, to continue operating in such a turbulent atmosphere. But in fact, these very challenges have made the program learn how to conduct its operations safely and securely.

ISLE is proud of the fact that there is a generation of renowned scholars at the University of Peradeniya who continue to teach its students, and its dedicated program staff and caring host families whose efforts change the lives of many student participants in many fruitful ways: maturing them intellectually and culturally, and giving them a memorable lifetime experience. As a result, a very significant percentage of ISLE alumni constitute the present day American scholars whose focus is Sri Lanka.

ISLE has provided quality education for over four hundred students. As it enters its next 25 years, it is a thriving program with hopes to expand by offering its program twice a year while accommodating additional institutions into its consortium.

For more information, contact:
Dr. Sree Padma Holt, ISLE Program Administrative Director
Phone: (207) 725-3874
Email: spadma@bowdoin.edu

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