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Leaving the Sunny Shores of Sri Lanka for Higher Studies : Things Nobody Told Me Before

Many of you graduating from University of Moratuwa (UOM) have big plans of moving oversees for your higher education. You may already be searching the university rankings of your prospective universities or writing to their Graduate Studies Departments. Whatever the reasons may be that you want to leave the paradise island for cold harsh winters, here are some things that I wish someone had told me before I left Sri Lanka. This is not a guide on how to write your personal letter or how to woo your next professor. This is more of a collection of the life experiences which might come in handy for anyone about to make the big move.

Before I begin, here’s something about myself. I entered UOM a good decade or so ago. Like any starry eyed undergraduate entering through those hallowed gates of University of Moratuwa, I was confident that I’ll conquer the world and have the best four years of my life. I mean, why wouldn’t I? I managed to get in to the “Best University” in Sri Lanka and become the “Cream of the Cream” right? Isn’t that what the Student Union President said on the inauguration day as I sat in the middle of 700 other equally clueless students in my dress code approved long skirt? Yes, I am quite invincible.

The four years came and went. I experienced a culture that I never knew existed. I crammed for exams, sat through “kuppi” lessons and made friends with people that I never in a million years thought I’d be friends with. I studied hard and managed to get a good GPA.  I fell in love and thought I met the man I’m destined to be with for the rest of my life. Unfortunately (or fortunately) , like many Mora romances , I just ended up with a broken heart and a “What not to do in a relationship” list. All in all, I had a very ordinary, run of the mill, University of Moratuwa student life. After graduating from UOM, I applied for a Masters Degree in North America and was fortunate enough to get a full scholarship. So I packed my bags, said my good byes and was ready for my big adventure. Little did I know that I had all this in store for me. 

Your experience will vastly differ depending on if you go as a couple or as a single girl/guy

Usually in Sri Lanka when you tell your parents of your intentions of moving abroad, one of the following two things will happen. The first scenario is especially true if you’re a girl.

Scenario 1: 
You will be rushed in to a marriage with either your “Amma-approved boyfriend/girlfriend” or a “Nice boy/girl from a nice family” that you met through an arranged marriage set-up. Are you ready for marriage? Do you think this person is marriage material? Is your relationship rocky at best? To your family, all of these issues pale in comparison to the horrifying thought of you living together in sin with some guy/girl and shaming the family.

Scenario 2
You will move abroad single leaving your entire family to worry if you’d get involved with someone that is definitely not “Amma Approved”. Or worst yet, a white man or woman!

Like the wildebeests in the savannahs flock together with their own kind, we Sri Lankans have a habit of sticking to our own kind. These days, all major cities in the world would have little Sri Lankan groups of immigrants bonding over weekend hopper parties.  Your acceptance in to these groups will vastly differ on whether or not you’re married. Most of these groups consists of married couples who have moved abroad to pursue their higher education. So these couples would undeniably be more interested in having other couple friends. As we are a hospitable bunch, the single new comers will also receive a ride from the airport or the grocery store once in a while, but after that, you’re more or less left to your own devices. Specially if you’re a single girl, more often that not, you’d feel like the odd one out in these gatherings.

Fear not Singles! There is so much more to moving abroad than pot luck parties filled with chicken curry and pol roti. After all , you didn’t leave behind 20 million Sri Lankans to hang out with just more of them.

Life could get tough. Real tough

You probably browse through the million Facebook photos of your seniors living in Australia, Canada etc. and think, “wow, they’ve got the good life”. Look at them grinning away in front of every single tourist attraction known to mankind. There’s one thing that those photos don’t show. As an immigrant graduate student, you go though a lot of hardships. Specially in the first few years. Even if you get a full scholarship, you generally still fall below the poverty line in most of these countries. Unless you have a daddy dearest who can spring some dough your way, you’d be strapped for cash. After paying a lions share of your income on rent, you might only have money to buy instant noodles.

This is especially tough on people who work for a few years in Sri Lanka before moving abroad. You get used to the good life of being a hot shot engineer, driving your little Toyota and having employees who call you “Sir/Miss” at your beck and call. Once you move abroad, you’re a lowly grad student peddling your bike to the University in the middle of the winter because, who has money for bus tickets?

You will experience a freedom you’ve never had before

Let’s face it. Most of us at University of Moratuwa, didn’t do a whole lot apart from studying in our school years. You’re probably thinking “Not me, I was a prefect and the president of the astronomy club too”. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about real fun.

When you live abroad, you don’t have a mom asking you the twenty questions every time you leave the house. You can come home at any time or with anyone. You can not come home at all (Unless you become one of those people that insist on skyping your parents at 8 pm every night) . You can get drunk and pass out outside a bar and no one cares! I have seen this kind of freedom get the best of most of the South Asians. Especially the ones who lived an ultra sheltered life before moving abroad. I’ve had locals ask me why these guys act like 16 year olds when they’re drunk. The answer is, we never got to do any of these as teenagers. We were sitting on bench in some tuition class doing a mountain of past papers when we were 16! 

You’ll meet the best group of friends

When you’re living alone in a foreign country for the first time, the home sickness can be very overwhelming. You miss your family, your friends, your home food. If you’re lucky you’ll make a great group pf friends who will be your new family. When you’re sick it’ll be them who take you to the hospital. It’ll be them that you’d confide in when your heart is broken for having to miss a big family event. It’ll be them that you’ll complain to about how your research is going nowhere over a 2 hour coffee break. These friends would be there for you through thick and thin. They will not judge you for going out on a date with a non-Sri Lankan guy/girl you met on tinder or for not coming to university on a Monday because you were too hung over. So go out of your comfort zone and make friends with people from all over the world. If not, you will never experience the true graduate student life.

These are the few pointers I have for anyone wishing to move abroad. Just because all your friends do it, doesn’t meet you have to too. Being an immigrant is not a bed of roses. It certainly wasn’t for me.
As for me now, I’m happily married to the love of my life. I work as an Engineer for a multinational company and I have a pretty great life. Now when I think of University of Moratuwa, I feel like it was a life time ago that I too was sitting in those dusty lecture halls or eating the MSG filled rice from Royal bath kade.  A chapter in my life filled with bitter sweet memories.

- Marie T -

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