Archives For Fulbright

The Sword (කඩුව)

August 2, 2012 — 1 Comment

Sri Lanka has free tertiary education, but only two percent of students are accepted to university. As a generalization, those accepted to University have excellent English skills; those lacking proficiency in English can be held back and prevented from going abroad on scholarships and grants.

The history of English in Sri Lanka is long and complex. During my orientation I had the chance to meet the gentleman who is the Director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission – Tissa. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, retired English literature professor. One day at lunch he told my fellow Fulbrighters and I, “We have destroyed the foundation of English teaching because of stupid political mistakes, because of nationalism and ‘equality’”.

He continued to tell us that the Sinhala word for English is a metaphor for the word ‘sword’ (කඩුව, Kaduwa). It is a weapon of those who speak it to repress those who do not. I recently read an op-ed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times which stated:

The privileged classes will learn an international variety of English and will be able to maintain their higher position in society permanently. The underprivileged classes who are being taught a local variety of English will be further disadvantaged. Those who will stand to benefit, will be the elite.

As an English Teaching Assistant, I will be sharpening that sword, in a sense. While I’ll be working through an NGO, teaching English at a community center, I need to be cognizant of the political and social implications of English in Sri Lanka.

English is a powerful tool, and it enables developing countries to improve their relations with the global economy. There is a profound need for English teaching in Sri Lanka, but I need to be constantly aware of the way that I teach English – so I don’t inadvertently criticize Sinhala.

I’m not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but I am excited for the challenges which lay ahead.


A government shelling civilian hospitals, providing the false hope of ‘No Fire Zones’, and corralling 130,000 people in one square mile.

I’ve just finished watching Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and am in a state of shock. This documentary sheds light on the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s Civil War – as the Government crushed the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

A UN Panel believes that at least 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war. International observers were forced to leave the Tamil occupied regions of the country, while civilians were deliberatley targeted by both the Government and Opposition forces.

The LTTE are the pioneers of the suicide bomb, and the nations of Sri Lanka was plagued by civil war for a quarter century. It is difficult for me to fully judge the government’s actions  when contextualized – though nothing can justify the bombing of civilian hospitals in a designated no fire zone.

I am thrilled to find that on July 27, 2012 the Sri Lankan Government announced it will begin conducting formal investigations into alleged human right violations (Indian Express). This is due to pressure on the Government from the international community, and it is expected that their report will be filed within 6 to 18 months.

With this investigation, I hope the nation of Sri Lanka will take another crucial step towards resolving this conflict.

Update: Thanks to a reader for sharing the Sri Lankan Government response to this documentary:

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity

-Horace Mann

If you’ve gone for an undergraduate or graduate degree in the past decade, or know someone who has, I’m sure you’re well aware of the staggering cost of a degree. American student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt (NPR).

Student debt vs. credit card and car loan debt

The cost of college has been the subject of debate; billionaire Peter Theil has launched a foundation to pay students to forgo a four year degree, while Seth Godin has written a manifesto on how to change school.

I have a number of thoughts on the course of education, but the subject of this post is to explain why I’ve started a petition against Citi Bank.

Citi is the second largest student loan originator in the country, and they do not offer the chance to defer loans for the Fulbright or Peace Corp programs. As a Fulbrighter I’ve had to start the process of applying for loan deferrals with the banks and government agencies who lent me money to go to college. I’ve spent quite some time on the phone with H.E.S.A.A. and MyFedLoad to determine the appropriate forms to file (for Stafford loans click here), when I got on the phone with a Citi Bank representative I was told that they don’t offer deferment for the Peace Corp or Fulbright – and pretty much said I was out of luck. My loan through Citi is at 10%, and I’m not asking that the interest stops accruing while I’m abroad – just to extend the grace period of the loan.

I’m really fortunate, Fordham is one of the most expensive colleges around and I’m graduating with about $50k in debt. I owe a little over $12,000 to Citi (which started as a $10,000 loan my sophomore year), and I’ll pay that off when I sell my car. If i didn’t have this option available my payments would be about $150 a month on this loan, which is about 15% of my Fulbright Stipend. I have to thank my supportive family for helping me to get through college, but if it wasn’t for them I’m not sure I could take this grant. If I had more loans through Citi, and couldn’t pay them off before my grant starts, I’d be in a tough place.

That is why I’m asking you to sign this petition to urge Citi to change their restrictive policy.

UPDATE: in 2010 Discover Financial purchased the Citi Student Loan Corporation. 

The Kindle Fire

July 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

For my birthday my parents got me a Kindle Fire. After a few days of use though, I opted to return it for a Kindle Touch.

The Fire is a good tablet, but its no competition for the the Touch, as its not an e-reader. I wanted a Kindle for one thing – reading books – and the Fire is not great for that. I found that the Fire’s screen was hard to read in the sun, and I was often distracted while reading from all the other features of the Fire.

I question Amazon’s branding strategy for the Fire. Its a good product, but branding it as a Kindle weakens the e-reader’s image. My parents assumed that as a Kindle it would be great for reading, though that isn’t the case. Amazon produces the best e-reader in the business. I’ve used the iPad on several occasions, and the Fire just doesn’t hold up. Conversely, the iPad is no match for the Kindle Touch when it comes to reading books. The main distinction here is the e-ink screen, which makes reading on a digital device as easy as a printed paper. There have been some great projects around the Kindle, take a look at The Domino Project for more information.

Amazon needs to reevaluate their strengths, and consider their e-book branding. The iPad has a Kindle App, why shouldn’t the Fire? Why is Amazon cannibalizing e-reader sales for the fire? Now that the Kindle is branded as a tablet they’ll have to compete with Google’s Nexus.



I recently came across a great report by the Economist Intelligence Unit – Fostering innovation-led clusters: A review of leading global practices.

This report focuses on what government can do to drive innovation within their economy, and how best they can work with the private sector. Below are some of my takeaways from the report:

  • Talent is the most important aspect of innovation – and government should focus on providing quality education
  • Governments are successful when they promote a culture of innovation
  • Specialized clusters work best, especially when they can compete
  • Accelerate the natural entrepreneurship model
  • Governments can realize success just by hosting networking events for corporate executives and government leaders – this is a low cost high reward initiative


One interesting focus of this report was “top-down or bottom-up”? Essentially the questions asked was are clusters better when they’re led by the government or led by the market? There are compelling arguments for both, from Silicon Valley (top-down) to Silicon Fen (bottom-up). Both areas feature world class universities, government funded research, and ample amounts of private financial capital. It seems to me that these clusters require much work between the public and private sectors.

As I prepare myself for a year in Sri Lanka, I have been researching their innovation community. There is not much on the web, as this nation is still at the early stages of economic development. Private companies, such as Microsoft  are hosting innovation competitions.  Microsoft’s Software for the 21st Century competition has invested $1.5mm over the past four years in Sri Lanka to raise their national standard of education. This is a long term strategic bet on Sri Lanka as a knowledge center.

While the Government, through the National Science Foundation and its Universities, are providing grants to encourage local innovation.

I’m quite excited to get  on the ground and learn more about whats going on in this quickly developing economy.

Economic development should not just be seen as a way to increase monetary wealth. It is a tool to foster political and social stability. A recent paper by the Council on Foreign Relations argues this. I haven’t read the full paper yet, but there is a great synopsis from the author on HBR’s Blog. Creating these innovation clusters should not just be a matter of national economic policy for individual countries, but a matter of foreign policy for all developed nations.


It’s amazing how I’ve forgotten my learning. I don’t know what I didn’t know, which makes teaching much harder – be it English or otherwise.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon when training others at work. I expect it will be much harder teaching English overseas, because I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that I was learning as I came to speak English.

I try to be conscious of this, but how does it effect the education system? Is this something teachers are taught to deal with?

It’s something organizations should give some thought to, as they bring new members on their team.

The week long orientation for Fulbright ETAs to Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia provided me with an overview of what the next year of my life will look like. For those of you unfamiliar with the program you can reference the transcript of Secretary Clinton’s welcome address to the Fulbright Program:

Every year 8,000 scholarly exchanges are made between 155 countries and America. There is a network of 300,000 Fulbrights, since the program’s inception.

When I accepted my grant I knew only that I’d be moving to Sri Lanka for nine months of my life to teach English. This orientation went a long way to reassuring me about this chapter of my life. Ambassador Ronald McMullen opened the orientation with his nine keys to preparing for life in a new country:

  1. Language – learning a few key phrases can go a long way towards gaining acceptance
  2. Incumbent – when going into a new office move around furniture to give people a visual reminder of the change
  3. Books – read one novel about the country and one guidebook
  4. Music – music is universal, learning some of the most popular songs in the country you’re traveling too will help you adjust
  5. Maps – getting a sense of where in the world you’re going is hugely invaluable
  6. Food – make sure to prep your stomach to the challenges which may be ahead
  7. Security – let the local Embassy know where you’ll be, so they can alert you to any potential developments
  8. School – learn about the local schools, the universities people attend
  9. Sports – sports are universal, but you should learn the local sports (be it curling, cricket, or soccer)


The rest of the conference was split between networking with Fulbright Alumni and the Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission and sessions preparing us to teach English.

Most of the Fulbrighters were told where in the country they would be placed. While I have yet to find out my physical location, however I did find out that I’ve been placed with Sarvodaya – the largest NGO in Sri Lanka.

It was a pleasure meeting my counterparts who will be teaching in countries across the world. In general, they were among the most thoughtful and worldly people I’ve ever met. I had a great time getting to know them over the course of a week, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Nepal for the Fulbright ETA conference in November.


A picture from the Fulbright dinner cruise – June 21, 2012

Qualified to Teach?

June 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

For the past week I’ve been going through orientation for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program. This orientation has brought together 64 recent college graduates who will be traveling to Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia (Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan).

There is a wide variety of students here, but very few of the ETAs have teaching experience (or were even teaching majors).

For the past three days we have been receiving instruction in teaching English as a foreign language. Throughout this program I’ve asked myself what qualifies me to teach English in Sri Lanka? I majored in finance at Fordham, not teaching. But the State Department saw something in me that made them believe I’m qualified to represent America and teach abroad.

Yesterday is came across a great NPR article on teaching qualifications. It turns out that Einstein would not be able to teach Physics in high school – as he was not a certified teacher.

At Fordham some of my best professors were those who didn’t have a doctorate degree, but had a great deal of real world experience. Charlie O’Donnell is a great example of this, his class fundamentally changed my career outlook. He is not an academic, and doesn’t have a masters or PhD, but he’s an incredibly effective teacher. This is because he’s teaching about something he is truly passionate about – the NYC Tech Community.

I wonder how our country would change if professionals were allowed to teach at the high school level. My guess is that we could get some really talented individuals into our schools.

I’m not an expert in education, but I believe this is a conversation we need to have.