It Takes a Global Village

    President Indira Samarasekera ponders an international legacy and a global future — plus spending time with one very special grandchild

    By Lisa Cook on May 20, 2015

    Indira V. Samarasekera with her family

    President Indira Samarasekera (left) photographed with her granddaughter
    and daughter in Vancouver this past spring.

    As Indira Samarasekera’s second term as University of Alberta president draws to its close June 30, she leaves the university with multiple legacies. One major theme has been her focus on globalism and international opportunities, including her parting gift to the university: an endowment establishing the Indira V. Samarasekera Global Student Leadership Fund to support students in their pursuit of education and mind-broadening experiences beyond Canadian borders. New Trail asked Samarasekera what globalism means to her and how it might shape U of A alumni of the future. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

    Why did you choose globalism as a focus for your legacy at the U of A?

    The Global Student Leadership Fund is very personal. I was able to leave Sri Lanka and travel to the United States, and eventually to Canada, because there were resources available to me. My parents were in no position to support an education for me outside the country, and so I think about what that seed of investment meant to my own life. It has been more than I could have imagined.

    As the world becomes a place in which talent and ideas flow freely, we need to tap into that incredible, dynamic collision of ideas and talent. You think about nature: the reason we have such a rich world is that nature is diverse. If all the plants were tomatoes and we had a plague, we’d be wiped out. Diversity creates resilience. And so globalization has the potential to increase the resilience of the global commons.

    So then, how do you think these kinds of international travel experiences change people, especially students?

    Students immersed in another culture, in another part of the world where there is a different set of challenges, come back with a much more complete experience. It helps them to develop entrepreneurial spirit, a cultural understanding, empathy, a sense of gratitude for what they have. It also helps them to develop a sense of obligation, because if they want to preserve the quality of democracy we have, then they’re going to have to work at it. From a very personal point of view, I think that is critical.

    You’ve used the term “global citizen” in the past. Is this what you mean by that?

    That’s right; it’s a two-way process. A citizen has rights and responsibilities, so a global citizen is someone who has a very clear understanding of his or her rights as a global citizen and therefore what his or her responsibilities are — not only in preserving those rights but in enhancing those rights, which means helping others. You know, I really think it’s about each one of us being able to live life to its fullest potential. That’s what global citizens are able to do.

    By and large, you want to live today so that tomorrow you feel like you haven’t wasted that day. I think it’s that notion of purpose, of saying, “What difference can I make?” and of challenging yourself and how you live life every day. I think that’s what it’s all about. When you see people who live life with purpose, you see people who are joyful, are engaged, who are optimistic, who are hopeful. And you see people who have no purpose and they’re lost. It’s the business of living purposefully that is crucial.

    In your time here, the U of A has also embraced an international sensibility. Is being global as important on an institutional level?

    At an institutional level, it positions you much better to understand what’s going on around the world. I’ll give you an example: I was very proud when the University of Alberta was invited to join the Worldwide Universities Network, a network of 16 universities from around the world.

    Wait, only 16 universities in total?

    Yes, only 16, including universities in the United States, Europe, South Africa, Hong Kong, China. . . . Being at those gatherings is like having radar about what the issues are in other parts of the world, what the challenges are for higher education. If an institution is unplugged from that then it can’t possibly chart its own course in a way that will serve it most efficiently in the future. It’s about having access to intelligence.

    Information is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. And so how do you get the wisdom? You get the wisdom by being connected to different people in different places in the world. I think that’s crucial for the institution.

    How do you see international students fitting into that equation?

    I think the more we educate students from Alberta, Canada and the world, we are building a family of U of A alumni who are well plugged in wherever they live. An alumnus who is originally from Hong Kong might end up living in Alberta, someone from Alberta might end up living in Malaysia, but they provide a kind of network that your new alumni and your students can connect with: mentoring, internship opportunities, travel abroad, study abroad. The investments a university makes today in international connections are going to benefit generations of students for a very long time in the future.

    Whatever your business — whether it’s in the arts, industries, manufacturing, whatever it is — the reservoir of talent and ideas is much larger globally than locally. If you build an organization based on a limited amount of talent and ideas, you’re not going to be as successful as an entity that knows where to go to get what it needs to build a successful enterprise.

    What we’re now discovering is that the more diverse a person’s experience, the more he or she can think more broadly and bring solutions and offer up new ideas. You know, I think this is why we’re waking up to the whole question of diversity in every form — not just the obvious, the apparent, differences. The invisible differences among people are just as important as the obvious ones.

    Don Tapscott [’78 MEd, ’01 LLD (Honorary)], who is now one of the world’s most significant global thinkers, is all about networks and connections. His books are changing how businesses are thinking about things. He’s talking about creating global platforms to solve our challenges. This truly embraces this notion of the next generation’s capability to move big issues forward.

    And now you’re moving forward. What do you hope to accomplish in your next role?

    Be a good grandmother! [laughs] I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I’m looking forward to it. I had a wonderful grandmother, oh, my gosh. I think she had such a profound influence on my life, and I’m not sure I would be where I am if not for her influence. She was a very global person, and I’m thinking back to the conversation that you and I just had. She was living in Sri Lanka, a colonial country, and her mother — this was my great-grandmother — started something called the International Women’s Club. In Sri Lanka!

    When I was growing up, my grandmother spent all her time at this International Women’s Club because by then her children had grown up. I couldn’t understand what on Earth she was doing there all the time, but I’d go to the club with her and she’d have people talking about women’s issues and playing mah-jong. It was truly their effort to understand the world in their own way in a small country like Sri Lanka.

    So now I’m thinking, OK, I’m where my grandmother was. I don’t have to worry about my children, so what can I do that might have some parallels? What can I do so that my granddaughter — who I hope will be the president of the University of Alberta in 50 years — might say the same thing about her grandmother?