Science scholars from Sri Lanka’s highlands flock to Mississippi


N ilmini Karunarathne and Nalaka Liyanage met at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, where they were studying chemistry and physics.

When they got their degrees, they heard from former classmates in America at a place called Ole Miss. It’s great, they were told. You should come too.

So they left behind their life in Kandy, leaving its lush tropical rainforest hills and a country still recovering from a civil war to begin doctoral studies in Mississippi.

They fretted back about tuition costs and the familiar life they would leave behind.

Then they saw the gleaming science labs, the modern equipment and the green, tree-shrouded campus in Oxford. The university had a state-of-the-art Ph.D program, unlike any other they had seen. And that’s what that led them here.

Initially, adjusting to life in America was difficult. There was new food, new traditions, a new culture, new clothing styles and oh, those Southern drawls.

They had been told what to expect, how Mississippians would be extremely social, very talkative, more so than Sri Lankans.

But when they arrived, they were surprised to find the climate brought flashbacks of home.

The humidity in the summer was like Sri Lanka during monsoon season, the air steamy and heavy. The only thing different was the winter. That they didn’t have in Sri Lanka.  

Over time the couple has begun to blend in with the locals, adopting Oxford’s small-town Southern charm and its vernacular into their vocabulary. Their English at times is broken and when they answer questions, responses are still usually short, often consisting of “yeah” and “no.”

“At first, it [adjusting in Oxford] was hard,” said Liyanage. “Whenever we went to a place we didn’t know the procedure. For example, self-checkout in Walmart. But with time, we got familiar with those things and now we are fine.”

They’ve been in Oxford about four years now.

Liyanage, the husband, arrived in 2013 after completing his B.S.A. at the University of Peradeniya. He’s more introverted than Karunarathne, but displays a warm smile when his home country and course of study are discussed.

“In our country we do not have many facilities to do the Ph.D program. In here, we have a lot of facilities and opportunities,” Liyanage says.

He has already persuaded classmates from back home to join him here.

Friends had told Liyanage what to expect, what teachers to take, what courses were rigorous.

What he wasn’t warned about was how different the education system was.

Back in Sri Lanka, public education is free with the exception of the Ph.D program. And because Sri Lanka was once under British rule, the education system is similar to the British school system.

Connected through their love of learning, Karunarathne and Liyanage have always made education a priority.

Following Liyanage’s enrollment at Ole Miss, Karunarathne followed shortly after and dove into atmospheric physics. Karunarathne taught fundamentals of physics during the fall semester. Despite their busy schedules, the couple finds time for each other and family, finding a balance between studies and home life.

The Sri Lankan population in Mississippi continues to expand, according to Karunarathne. “We have lots of families here,” she said. “There is another girl who works in this department, and my brother, he is also here.”

This small branch of Sri Lanka is steadily growing across North Mississippi, from Oxford to Starkville. They’re concentrated in the sciences — from biology to physics —  and they find ways to connect with each other.

“We have some parties here and there,” Liyanage said. “We invite all the Sri Lankans here because there are a lot of families in the pharmacy department and science departments.”

Despite the rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, they connect through activities like cricket and and celebrate the Sri Lankan New Year, Aluth Avurudda, in April in Starkville, where a larger group of Sri Lankans is located at Mississippi State University.

They have a startling observation about Oxford. “Kandy looks like Mississippi. It’s not a trans-city like New York. It’s just like Oxford,” Karunarathne said.

She insists there are more things to enjoy in Sri Lanka, however. “You can cover the entire country within a week. It’s small and we have a great variety of climate.”

The couple’s love for their new home runs deep and has grown stronger through time. Mississippi’s hospitality, its history and appeal is not something they plan on leaving for a while. Until they get their degrees.

“One thing is, in Sri Lanka we cannot achieve a degree like this. So it’s really a big thing in my life — in our lives,” Karunarathne said.

They are not alone.

One thing is, in Sri Lanka we cannot achieve a degree like this. So it’s really a big thing in my life — in our lives.

Nilmini Karunarathne

For Achini Kumari, Oxford is now home, a place to settle.

Oxford is a predominantly Christian community steeped in Southern charm while her home country is a repository of Buddhist faith and culture. But like Karunarathne, Kumari insists that the town itself — its atmosphere, its proportions, its friendliness — is not too different from her home town of Kandy.

I have twin daughters, and they’re exhausting,” she laughs. “But, I love it here. It’s a second home.”

Kumari came to the United States at age 7. Her dad had once been a researcher and professor in Pennsylvania and her mom, a high school teacher. Education ran deep in her family. When she returned to Sri Lanka, it wasn’t long before she returning to America, this time coming down south to Mississippi in 2006.

America had always been a second home, a place of familiarity.

“They say that Mississippi is twice the size of Sri Lanka,” Kumari says. “In scale, Sri Lanka is small and isn’t as clean as Oxford. The public transportation system is also different.”

But the town’s charm was captivating, and so were the people. She smiles at the memory of her first friendly encounter in Oxford.

It was at the bank.

“The greetings were surprising to me,” she said. “The ‘Hey, how are you’s.’ It was very welcoming.” She knew she had made the right decision.

From the beginning she wanted one thing: a degree and to someday teach. Kumari had always been a reader. She loved English literature. But she also found pleasure in logistics and the idea of learning how to program and write an application. She looked at Facebook often, wondering whether she could make something like it. Instead, she discovered that she enjoyed teaching more and decided to pursue an education degree.

In the classroom, she occasionally engages her students about Sri Lankan history. “Usually they are curious, but sometimes they don’t want to ask,” Kumari said.

People she meets ask her about the culture, the religious makeup of the island, and the civil war.

They’re not questions out of the ordinary, especially those about the war.

Kumari recalls going to school and amid a wave of suicide bombings by Tamil terrorists, who pioneered the deadly art. At that time, suicide bombings were something alien to the rest of the world. But in Sri Lanka, they were common.

The bombs found their victims everywhere.

“It could be children, it could be adults, it could be women, it could be young boys. Nobody really knew. It’s something no country should ever have to face. And even with everything that’s going on in the world, there’s always a small percentage of people that create the biggest messes,” she said.

You could never let your guard down during the bombings.        

“You have your parents going off to work and you’re going off to school, and you’re in a situation where you don’t know what will happen. That’s terrifying,” she said.

Even in the calm serenity of Oxford, she occasionally has flashbacks of fearful times in Sri Lanka during the war.

With the little free time that she has, she enjoys traveling with her two children. So far, they’ve been to Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas.

She has built a home. She communicates with her family through Skype and Facebook. Separated from them by more than 9,000 miles, it’s hard to not be homesick. But now she considers traveling there as a journey, and Oxford as home.

“I used to think that I would go back to Sri Lanka full-time, but recently I’ve been changing my mind. I’m so used to it here that I prefer it. You never know, I can never say that I will never go back,” she said.

Author Ethel Mwedziwendira

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