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Introductory Remarks by Executive Director Tissa Jayatilaka at the Opening Plenary of the South and Central Asia Fulbright Regional Workshop – 26th January, 2011

Good morning and a warm welcome to all of you. It is 17 long years since the United States- Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission hosted a meeting of this kind. On 23, 24 and 25 March, 1994, we hosted a meeting of South Asian Fulbright colleagues in the company of those from the United States plus those from North Africa and the Middle East.

This time around we have virtually the same crowd except for North African and Middle Eastern colleagues. In their place we have those from Central Asia. For those of you who are here for the first time, I do hope you will have a pleasant stay and wish that you will have an opportunity to explore Sri Lanka. Most of us from South and Central Asia who labour on behalf of the splendid Fulbright programme, as noted above, are here. Those who do from the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau (ECA) of the Department of State in Washington D.C., representatives from the Fulbright Scholarship Board, from the co-operating agencies–the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Council for the International Exchange of scholars (CIES) are here with us this morning.

This concentration of Fulbright talent in one place reminded me of a few lines from a speech made in another context by one of my favourite former U.S. Presidents, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was tempted to quote those lines and a few minutes ago I decided not to resist that temptation. There is a particular resonance although the context in which these lines were originally spoken is admittedly different. So here goes.

Describing the Nobel Prize winners that had assembled over dinner at The White House on 29 April, 1962, President Kennedy observed:

I think it’s the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at The White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

The Fulbright programme in Sri Lanka which in currently in its 58th year will reach 59 in November 2011. Next year, the United States – Sri Lanka Fulbright commission will be six decades old.

In recent years the Fulbright Commission in Sri Lanka has sought to function not only as an administrative entity dispensing Fulbright, Humphrey and East-West Centre Awards but also as an academic centre. Consequently the Commission hosts regular lecture/discussions, seminars, workshops and other academic activities on a variety of relevant themes. It, therefore, acts as a disseminator of ideas and bridge builder to promote further the mutual understanding that exists between the peoples of Sri Lanka and the United States.

When the late Senator J. William Fulbright sponsored legislation establishing the prestigious Fulbright programme, which was signed into law by President Truman on 1 August 1946, he saw a world devastated by war and awed by its newly acquired atomic power. Remembering his own overseas experience as a Rhodes Scholar, the young senator reasoned that people and nations had to learn to think globally if the world was to avoid annihilation. He believed that if large numbers of people lived and studied in other countries, “they might develop a capacity for empathy, a distaste for killing other men and an inclination for peace”.

In more than 60 years, the Fulbright programme has enabled more than half a million people from the United States and 140 other countries to live and study in another country. More than 176,000 foreign nationals have taught, studied or done research in the U.S., and more than 270,000 Americans have gone overseas to undertake similar projects.

What is most unique about this programme is that it has established a global system of bi-national exchanges, each between the United States and a partner nation. There are 51 bi-national Commissions administering the Fulbright programme around the world. True bi-nationalism was a primary objective of Senator Fulbright.

“I had not wanted this to be an American program,” he wrote. In each country, bi-national commissions were to develop the kind of programme that make sense to them. What kind of students and professors should be selected, what kind of research ought to be undertaken.

These were decisions for each Commission to make.

From the outset, the Fulbright programme has been truly “academic”, with respect for the freedom and integrity that should characterise scholarly and intellectual discourse within and across national boundaries. The Fulbright programme has produced several generations of leaders with broadened vision in the sciences, the arts, education, literature, business, the media and government. It has also brought about an untold amount of shared knowledge, cross fertilization and global networking in all these fields. In a human sense it has touched the lives of so many Fulbrighters and, through them, and the colleagues and students they touched, brought greater understanding between the United States and other nations around the world.

So we at the United States – Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission take our role as promoter of mutual understanding very seriously. It is our conviction that in order to promote mutual understanding between Sri Lanka and the United States, we need to promote mutual understanding among the diverse ethnic groups within our island home that form the Sri Lankan mosaic. In this context we value highly the role played by the Fulbright and Humphrey Alumni Associations of Sri Lanka.

To-date nearly a 1000 U.S.- and Sri Lankan scholars and students have visited each other’s countries under Fulbright auspices. The Fulbright programme provides opportunities for a selected group of Sri Lankan senior researchers and junior scholars to engage in research and post graduate studies in the U.S. and for scholars and students from the U.S. to engage in teaching and research in Sri Lanka.

The long-term benefits accrued under this programme go beyond academic exchanges between the two countries and symbolize Sri Lanka’s enduring relationship with the American people.

The Fulbright Commission also offers a student advisory service for those desirous of study in the United States. Our Student Adviser offers advice and guidance to scores of Sri Lankan students who visit the Commission.

Once again I welcome all of you and hope very much that this Regional Fulbright Workshop will be both a pleasant and rewarding experience for all of us.

Thank you very much.

Tissa Jayatilaka