Creating Global Citizens

As she departs, president Samarasekera ponders an international legacy for the university - plus, spending time with one special grandchild

Omar Mouallem - 08 January 2016

Sri Lanka is surprisingly small. This island just southeast of the tip of the Indian subcontinent is little more than 65,000
square kilometres - and for much of her early life, this was the world for Indira Samarasekera.

Aside from two years she lived in the United Kingdom as a toddler during her father's medical training in the 1950s, Samarasekera didn't leave Sri Lanka until she was 23 years old. "I never went very far even within the island," she says. There was no television and little media outside the local and national Sri Lankan newspapers and the cinema. But she did have access to the world through the International Women's Club, an organization started by her great-grandmother. When Samarasekera was young, her grandmother would take her along to the club. There she witnessed people discussing women's issues and playing the Chinese table game mah-jong.

"It was truly their efforts to understand the world in their own way, in a small country," Samarasekera says.

Five decades later, Samarasekera, who hands over the keys to her South Academic Building office to president- and vice-chancellor-elect David Turpin on June 30, has helped University of Alberta students understand the world in their own way. Throughout the 10 years of her presidency, she has tirelessly promoted the school to international students and forged cross-border and cross-ocean partnerships. Now, even as she prepares to leave Edmonton for Vancouver to live near her only granddaughter, Samarasekera will continue spreading the gospel of globalism.

She will do so through a resident fellowship at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, a University of British Columbia think-tank on world economics, environmentalism and social justice, and by establishing the Indira V. Samarasekera Global Student Leadership Fund at the University of Alberta. The fund will allow students to take their education, research or internships international.

It's more than just about promoting a culture of philanthropy; Samarasekera's fund is about giving the university and its students their best shot. "We live in a global atmosphere where education has now become the pre-eminent determinant for quality of life. And so it shall be."

It's certainly true of her. Had she stayed in her homeland, Samarasekera would have probably had a fine academic career. But it was a Fulbright scholarship to the University of California, Davis that gave her the global experience required to later head a major Canadian university and change its direction.

Moving to the United States was Samarasekera's first sojourn from Sri Lanka as an adult. In Davis, Calif., she expected to find the skyscrapers, density and beautiful Manhattanites she'd witnessed in movies, but she was shocked to find a campus surrounded by farmland. "You can read books, you can visit websites. But until you see, hear, smell, touch, you aren't forced to examine your own beliefs, your own responses to other people in the world," she says. "People underestimate that humans have five senses for a reason."

Samarasekera hopes her granddaughter, Anila, will also have the opportunity to become a global citizen. Even though the child was born into an information-soaked digital age and will no doubt grow up with more international media at her fingertips than any generation before, Samarasekera believes it's no replacement for personal experience. "Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom," she says. "You get the wisdom by being connected to different people in different places in the world."

Until June 30, Samarasekera will mostly get grandmother-granddaughter time from afar, through the glass screen of technology. Her main focus now is to be as good a grandmother as her own. Samarasekera finds herself where her grandmother was 50 years ago, with children grown and impressionable grandchildren at her

"[My grandmother] had such a profound influence on my life," she says. "That's what I want with my granddaughter - who I hope will be the president of the University of Alberta 50 years from now. I hope she might say the same thing about me."