Alumnus starts media-focused program in Sri Lanka during gap year

February 5, 2015 — by Spring Ma and Vibha Seshadri

Class of 2014 alumnus Bobby Vithanage has taken a gap year to start a Media Arts Program at St. Thomas College (STC) in Colombo, Sri Lanka inspired by the one at SHS.

Class of 2014 alumnus Bobby Vithanage scanned the eager eyes of Sri Lankan students, ages 11-18, gathered around him in the humid, packed classroom. He counted one student after another and finally reached a whopping total of 70 students.

He had expected his Media Arts Program to attract some interest, but no where near this level.

The students sat ready for the first meeting of the Media Arts Program at St. Thomas College (STC), a primary and secondary education school in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Vithanage, excited by the unexpected attendance, eagerly showed them several videos of the tourist sights and scenery of Sri Lanka.

He filmed these videos on his GoPro, a wide-angle compact video lens with a hand-held extending attachment for rugged travelling. The kids buzzed with excitement, ready to create their own videos just like Vithanage’s.

Last fall, as their classmates began to attend various colleges, Vithanage and Gunn High School Class of 2014 alumnus Patrick Skelly (the son of former Saratoga High principal Kevin Skelly) prepared for a new chapter of their own. They planned to spend three months of their gap year experiencing the culture of Sri Lanka, Singapore, Dubai and Thailand before Vithanage heads to Santa Clara University next year.

Inspired by some older friends, Vithanage began saving for his gap year three years ago. He felt that it was the perfect time to go out and experience the world, something he could only do if he took a gap year.

“What really drove me to make the gap year decision was to travel the world at a young age and experience as much as I possibly could,” Vithanage said. “I just wanted the most intense adventure you could imagine and break out of the [Saratoga] bubble.”

Vithanage arranged to fly to Colombo in early September and spend a week in Dubai, leaving the itinerary for the rest of the three months unscheduled. Skelly and Vithanage wanted to plan each day of their trip spontaneously.

Vithanage and Skelly chose to use Sri Lanka as the base of their travel because Vithanage had family there and because it was near other locations they hoped to visit.

“Being able to live the Lankan life gave me insight to how my dad grew up and the struggles he faced,” Vithanage said.

In addition to embracing his heritage, Vithanage also embarked on the trip with one main goal: to construct a fully developed, hands-on Media Arts Program in Sri Lanka with Skelly. Inspired by his experience in MAP at Saratoga High, Vithanage said he believes that students in other cultures should also have to opportunity to get exposure to types of media.

Vithanage’s plans required tremendous work and patience. Upon landing in Sri Lanka, he encountered an unexpected detour in the process, one that landed him in a third grade classroom at the age of 19. Vithanage was going to learn Sinhala, the Sri Lankan language, alongside third graders.

“[At the time,] I honestly didn’t think not knowing Sinhala would be a problem, but I found out I was wrong about that real quick,” Vithanage said. “Less than 10 percent of the population of 20 million could speak English.”

During class, Vithanage befriended a Tamilian third grader named Akash. Akash’s parents had sent him to boarding school with the hopes of allowing him to achieve his goals and live his dream in America. Akash helped Vithanage learn Sinhala, and in turn, Vithanage tutored him in English.

Now able to speak minimal Sinhala, Vithanage is thankful for the time he spent at the school, as well as for Akash.

Soon after learning to assimilate into the Sri Lankan culture, Vithanage planned to start a MAP program at STC and also volunteer at the SOS Children’s Villages orphanage in Nuwara Eliya. When the school learned he and Skelly were planning to major in economics, STC also asked them to teach their A-level (ages 15 to 17) students the subject.

“We were only going to stay for a couple weeks, but weeks turned to months,” Vithanage said. “Soon enough, two months [of the three months we had at Sri Lanka] passed by and we were still at the school.”

During the introductory meeting for the media program, Vithanage realized that he was severely under-equipped. All Vithanage had was a GoPro, but he decided to make the best of the situation. Students took turns filming with the GoPro, and Vithanage showed everyone how to edit the videos on his laptop.

Next, Vithanage split up the students into groups focused on journalism, videography, photography and web design, which meant they had to use the school’s limited computers. By doing so, Vithanage reduced the amount of equipment he needed and gave each student the opportunity to pursue their interests.

Vithanage plans to hold a fundraiser this fall to bring more equipment to the school, and is currently contacting STC alumni for donations.

“It’s a slow start but I'm hopeful it will continue to grow,” Vithanage said. “Any help is tremendous because a little bit here goes a long ways there.”

As for the program itself, Vithanage has given the reins to another teacher at STC and still interacts with the students on a daily basis online. He plans to return to Sri Lanka in June and spend a few weeks at STC.

Despite the current shortage of technological equipment, Vithanage and Skelly have already met many of their short-term goals for the program, such as the launch of the school’s new website.

“[We hope] to cover every event on campus, report every story, and by the start of the next school year, produce a school-wide broadcast once a week just like SHSTV,”  Vithanage said.  

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