Growing up in Sri Lanka as a Buddhist, then later joining the Church at age 13 helped senior Sula Jayasekara eventually find his way to BYU–Hawaii and fulfill his dreams of gaining a college education. After making it to BYUH and facing numerous problems, Jayasekara said a chance encounter with President Tanner kept him at school.
“I never thought I’d have a hard time trying to get an education, but I did. I applied to a lot of places in Sri Lanka and things weren’t working out because the educational opportunities are limited in my country,” said Sula Jayasekara, a senior majoring in information technology.
Despite the Church being small in his native country of Sri Lanka, Jayasekara explained his father discovered the Church.
He followed him and joined. According to churchofjesuschrist.org, there are only 1,597 members of the Church in Sri Lanka out of an estimated 21 million total country population.
Jayasekara went on to serve a mission in the Philippines San Pablo Mission, but after returning home, found himself struggling to get educated. He said he applied to come to BYUH and was denied a few times because the I-WORK program was not available to people from Sri Lanka.
“I eventually got accepted into BYU–Hawaii, but not on to the I-WORK program. I arrived in the United States not knowing anyone. I struggled a lot early on because I had to find a way to support myself financially in order to stay here.”
Reflecting on his experience as a struggling student, Jayasekara said, “After a few months, it was getting to the point where I couldn’t afford to be here. I went to the financial aid office to try and get help, but I couldn’t because I wasn’t a U.S. citizen and I wasn’t eligible for I-WORK. I got sick too, and I just wasn’t having a good time.
“I decided that I would go home because it wasn’t worth everything I was going through to stay here.”
Shortly after this decision, Jayasekara said he went to the cafeteria and ate by himself in the corner, struggling and thinking about what he was going to do when he got home to Sri Lanka.
“As I was sitting there, President Tanner came into the cafeteria and approached me and talked to me. I explained my situation and struggles to him and he helped me find a way to stay in school and get on the I-WORK scholarship program.”
This chance encounter with President Tanner was “nothing short of a miracle,” Jayasekara said, allowing him to remain at BYUH and fulfill his dream to get an education.
As the only student from Sri Lanka, he said, “In the beginning, it was pretty hard to be here and the only one from my country. I didn’t really understand Canvas, the Testing Center and other things about being a student here. I didn’t have a lot of support early on, but I eventually figured it out.”
Knowing of Jayasekara’s struggles, Zak Simpson, a sophomore majoring in information technology from Fiji, said, “Sula is a strong person and one to look up to. He has a very casual and easy-going personality, which usually masks the struggle he has gone through to stay and study here in BYUH. He feels it a privilege to be here.”
Jayasekara said people know little of the country he’s from, which is a densely populated island located in the Indian Ocean, according to Britannica.com. “I feel like Sri Lanka is similar to Hawaii. Not many people know but it is a beautiful place with great surfing surrounded by the Indian Ocean.”
One struggle he has faced here is the little knowledge people know of Sri Lanka and the region of South Asia, Jayasekara explained. “People often think I’m Indian. I understand that people may get us confused but Sri Lanka and India are a lot different. Our cultures are different. We speak different languages.”
Jayasekara said although little is known about his country and surrounding countries, he is grateful there is a growing presence of students from India. He said despite having some differences, they share some similarities, and he feels comfortable hanging around them.
Shan Sundaram, a close friend of Jayasekara and sophomore majoring in marketing from India, said because their countries have similar cultures, they were able to become good friends. “He is also someone I call my best friend and brother. Sula is a very talented person and has a great knowledge of computers, having worked for many years in the field.”
With a keen interest and growing knowledge of computers, Jayasekara explained although he is not entirely sure where he will be after he graduates, he hopes to work in the cyber security field.