Great things at Jaffna College

Diane Faires - Sri Lanka

Diane Faires - Sri Lanka

Warm greetings from Tennessee! I have made the transition back to the U.S., and have enjoyed catching up with friends and family over the past few months. It was very hard to leave the wonderful friends I made in Sri Lanka over the past two years, though, especially as they are facing renewed tensions.

As I was preparing to leave Jaffna last December, there were daily attacks on both military personnel and civilians. Even as the two sides prepared to sit down and discuss the ceasefire in February, sporadic incidents of violence continued in the northeast. Please pray that the political leaders make real progress in their talks, progress which restores a lasting peace to the people of Sri Lanka.

Without a permanent, just solution to the long-standing ethnic conflict, I fear that the bright, loving students that I taught at Jaffna College will be stuck in a cycle of poverty and violence. I want to tell you a bit more about this school that is doing great things in spite of the obstacles. Jaffna College, started by American missionaries in 1823, was once considered among the best schools in Asia. Before the war, students from across the island studied here and the college was famous in many fields.

The school is indeed a very different place now, but I believe it may actually be fulfilling its mission more faithfully now than in the past. Today, most of the students come from the surrounding villages. Many are from poor families, and the high-quality education they are getting at Jaffna College will open many doors to them, and in turn help them to improve their community. The government schools in the area lack the facilities, qualified teachers, and extra-curricular activities that Jaffna College can provide. Other schools also lack the caring Christian environment that encourages all students (regardless of religion or background) to achieve their best.

For example, some low-caste children who were studying at a nearby school were asked by a teacher, ”Why are you wasting your time studying? You should be out working in the fields.” Those same children, after studying at Jaffna College for a couple of years, are doing quite well, academically, and are treated with respect by the teachers here. One grade 7 student told me that when she was studying at her old school, she didn’t speak a word of English. When she first arrived in Jaffna, she used to sit in class with her head down, because she didn’t know any of the answers. Now she has been enrolled at Jaffna College for less than three years, and thanks to the support of her teachers here, she is making As and Bs, and she dreams of one day becoming a doctor. No one else in her family has completed high school.

I have been especially happy to see the emphasis placed on involving students in service projects recently. Last year, the school organized several groups of students to assess the needs of tsunami victims and to donate the needed items. Students were given the responsibility for organizing and carrying out the project. This was the first time many of them had had such a responsibility, and such an opportunity to tangibly improve the lives of others. Since then, other student groups have undertaken similar projects to visit and improve the lives of people displaced by the war. In addition, a group of students has recently begun a project of adult literacy tutoring for a very poor leprosy-effected community near Vaddukoddai. Through these service projects, the students are not only developing their leadership skills, but they are also expanding their outlook and developing their character. In this way, Jaffna College is producing compassionate, well-rounded citizens.

When I arrived, I was very impressed with the quality of the extra-curricular activities here, and the dedication of the teachers who organize these activities. For the last two years, I have directed student English dramas, and these village children have done productions of Shakespeare that are equal to or better than anything I’ve seen American High School students perform. The school band, choir, sports, and other programmes are top-notch. Children of village farmers, coolies, and labourers are able to develop their talents alongside children from more privileged backgrounds, and are given the best facilities and training. The 2005 student council president is the eldest son of a farmer. He has grown up with very little exposure to the world outside of Jaffna. A few years ago, his English teacher encouraged him to enter the school competition in English poetry recitation, although he had little public speaking experience. This student has now won district-wide oratory competitions, played Hamlet in last year’s drama, and was selected to participate in a prestigious Youth Parliament program in Colombo. He is very grateful to Jaffna College for all he has learned here.

By preparing village children, many from difficult backgrounds, to be well-rounded, confident leaders, and giving them the tools to compete in the job market, all in a positive Christian environment, Jaffna College is providing a great service in a society still seeking healing after two decades of war and fear. I am thankful that I got to be a part of this process.

With love,
Diane serves as a Global Mission Intern by the Common Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She teaches English and participates in community- based work.

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