ISLE Program

2008 Spring Pre-Orientation

Spring 2008 marks the first of two sessions for the year, with the second to follow in the fall. This is ISLE's first year as a two-semester program. Having two opportunities per year to take part in ISLE has opened up the program to many students whose academic needs or scheduling may have originally prevented them from participating.

By offering two semesters per year, it also allows for a more intimate experience for the students, as the groups are smaller. Instead of having 17 - 22 students in one group, we anticipate more manageable numbers each semester, up to sixteen per group. The Spring 2008 group is comprised of seven students.


During the summer, the students were very busy preparing for their departure at the end of August. Using a private Web site tool called Blackboard, students gathered information on everything from courses offered and instructions regarding things like immunizations and passports. They also made use of a discussion board for exchanging ideas and concerns, and for asking questions. Information was also distributed to both parents and students using an email Listserve, which is a very useful way to reach the group instantaneously.

Students carefully chose their courses, read the ISLE HANDBOOK, and started rudimentary Sinhala language prep. The biggest challenge may have been the reading assignments, and to their credit this group dove right into what would not -- by any stretch of the imagination -- be considered light reading. (More on this further down the page.) The literature we distribute is meant to help students become familiar with Sri Lanka's many aspects; its history, culture, geography and people. Reading these items assists them in thinking about Sri Lanka early on, gives them something on which to base their discussions on Blackboard, and, of course, aids their studies upon arrival.

The program handbook is invaluable, and covers topics such as preparing for the long flight, health and safety tips, how to have a successful homestay experience, and more.  Students were urged to read this before departure, and to bring it along for reference. The handbook is quite informative about making the transition and adjustment to Sri Lankan culture, societal expectations and the varied nature of academic experience in Sri Lanka.

Below are our student profiles:

Marjorie Corbman

As a Religious Studies major at College of the Holy Cross, Marjorie Corbman hopes to gain comprehensive knowledge about Sri Lanka's religious traditions. She feels that learning about the country's history, culture, art and natural environment will help her develop a more complete and multi-faceted understanding of the daily practice of religious life on the island.

Adam Hall

Science holds special interest for Bowdoin College junior Adam Hall, who has also studied archeology, Asian history, literature and philosophy. He looks forward to learning how the use and management of the natural environment of Sri Lanka impacts its traditions and culture. Adam hopes his experience there may help shape his future which, at this point, he feels will involve the field of science in some form.

Chris Johnston
Chris Johnston is a junior and political science major at Grinnell College. While he also enjoys studying philosophy and religion, Chris hopes that his independent study project in Sri Lanka may compliment his major, and help him gain a deeper understanding of the country's current and political history.
Sam Modest

Learning more about South Asian culture "from within" is a goal of Asian Studies major Samuel Modest. Sam looks forward to integrating the academic learning with his daily experiences in Sri Lanka and has a broad range of interests he hopes to indulge on the program (he has taken classes in twelve different departments at Bowdoin). Sam confesses he's really looking forward to the field trips in particular.

Aliya Sabharwal

Aliya Sabharwal is an Asian Studies major at Bowdoin, and is interested in how the ISLE Program might enhance her efforts at studying religion and art through an "anthropological lens." She finds the social implications of religion to be of particular interest, and is looking forward to both the anthropological and language components of the program.

Yoni Shemesh

Yoni Shemesh is a double major in History and Asian studies, with the history concentration on Africa. He is interested in historiographic studies within the larger fields of politics and nationality, and finds the relationship between religion and politics another interesting area of study. Yoni is a junior at Bowdoin.

Asteria Valusek

Sociology major Asteria Valusek is working to complete a minor in Race and Ethnic Studies at Whitman College. Asteria's parents are from the former Czechoslovakia, and as someone who was raised in a cross-cultural home, she finds herself particularly drawn to the study of identity formation "across both time (history) and space (cultures)." She anticipates this may well be the foundation of her learning experience in Sri Lanka.

John Holt John Holt, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College, is the Spring 2008 Faculty Director.  Professor Holt has published three books and several articles about the religious culture of Sri Lanka, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Peradeniya in 2002, and has been involved in the ISLE program since its inception. This is his fourth term directing the program in Sri Lanka over the years.


Preparations for the program commenced well before the students arrived in February. ISLE Administrative Director, Dr. Sree Padma Holt, met ahead of time with faculty and adminstration at the University of Peradeniya to plan for courses and set up the program calendar for the semester. Dr. Holt also facilitates the orientation and prepartion for each group of students by creating and involving the students in the Blackboard Web site, the Listserve email exchange, etc., and seeing that students follow the steps necessary to address tasks such as acquiring immunizations and passports. The Administrative Director acquires the necessary resident Visas for students through the Sri Lankan embassy before the group's departure.

Phil F. Phil Friedrich (Bowdoin College, 2005) first came to Sri Lanka as an ISLE student in the fall of 2004. After returning to the island and working as a program assistant in 2006, Phil was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study and undertake research in conjunction with the University of Peradeniya. Phil has been studying Sinhala and Pali, as well conducting field research on religious culture in Sinhala-Buddhist villages. His experience as a scholar of Sri Lankan culture, an ISLE student, and as assistant in the past will prove to be invaluable to both students and faculty director.

More on Sri Lankan Reading Materials

Students were given an important novel to read before the trip, When Memory Dies. It is a story that follows the trajectory of three generations of a family through 20th century Sri Lanka, and offers many insights into the current political and social culture of the island. Director John Holt wrote to the students: "It is a good read that definitely yields a good feel for why the country is now at such a political impasse. It is difficult to emphasize just how much the current ethnic conflict weighs on everyone's mind in Sri Lanka. If you show up in Sri Lanka without much of a sense for what is going on, some people, including some of our faculty who teach for the program, will wonder why you came in the first place!"

Students are also asked to read some chapters in The Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa is a Buddhist monastic chronicle dating from the 5th through 19th centuries. The text provides insight not only into the early history of the country, but also how the past has been understood by many Sinhala people in the present. The selections of readings from The Mahavamsa directly relate to our Ancient Material Culture course focused on the early history of Sri Lanka as well as courses offered in Sinhala culture and rituals.


The Insight Guide to Sri Lanka, which was also distributed to students before departure, gives some idea of what to expect from life in Sri Lanka and provides useful tips on Sri Lankan culture and customs, including proper etiquette and conduct. In addition, it gives a good overview of ancient and modern Sri Lankan history -- something students need to know to make sense of their experience in Sri Lanka.

We look forward to bringing you reports and photographs from the Spring 2008 group, and will soon tell you about the students' arrival and orientation in Sri Lanka. Once again, we thank families for their support, and hope you enjoy the Web pages.