Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Future Leaders Conference, Day 4

Day 4, The Final Test

A long night of debriefing ended at 2:30 AM when the SLU team finally arrived back at their temporary residences to close shop for the night. The following morning, I opted for some extra sleep and awoke at 9:00 AM on the final full day of the conference. The leisurely walk to the conference hall allowed me to appreciate the students’ small group sessions before I entered the grounds of the main building of the MAS Institute campus. With the last complete day of the conference looming, the outcome of the upcoming events would be the most transparent test for the success of the entire venture. The staff was quite aware that their months of hard work culminated with the final and lasting impressions that would be engraved upon the minds of their audience.

Day 4, Uniting Generations

With breakfast cleared for the morning, the students marched to the auditorium for the first time that morning where they were to listen to Nayana Karunarathna, the founder of a successful branch of salons in Sri Lanka. Her light-hearted and motherly tone connected with the audience as she recounted her experiences as a young girl amidst the horror of the war. Her salons do not discriminate against any ethnicity, and her heart-felt emphasis on the importance of a united Sri Lanka captured the interest of students and staff alike. Since the theme the day was “The Leader in You,” Karunarathna revealed her Ten Commandments for personal quality that included honesty, personal image, and confidence. Her session was immediately followed by the experienced Justice C.G. Weeramanthri, the former Vice President of the International Court of Justice. He emphasized the importance that ancient tradition can have on the deciding the future. By giving storied examples from all four of Sri Lanka’s major religions, he portrayed the need for the incorporation of tradition into modern solutions. In fact, an ancient story even forbids the use of devastating weapons, a striking parallel to the anti-nuclear proliferation discussions of today. Justice Weeramanthri gave voice to the importance of unity for various ethnicities and religions with the remainder of his speech. The daily question and answer period have consistently shown that these young adults are sincerely interested in the ways they and serve their country. Many of the questions revolve around advice for creating a better tomorrow or techniques for overcoming future challenges. This concern not only uncovers a deep-seated passion for Sri Lanka, but a selfless attitude in achieving a better future.

Day 4, The Cricket Legend

The students broke for lunch around 1:45 in the afternoon before returning to the auditorium for a presentation from the company Janet about personal presentation in the corporate world. At the end of the presentation, Janet gave out a personal hygiene kit to each of their listeners. What happened next will be noted as the highlight of the conference by much of the onlookers. The Sri Lankan icon and internally renown cricket player, Sanath Jayasuriya was introduced to the stage with an energetic video clip displaying his amazing abilities. His motivational speech inspired many of the students and they expressed their gratitude personally during the lengthy questioning that followed. Some inquired after his cricket experiences while others were interested with his interpretation of Sri Lanka’s current situation. One young man even noted that Sri Lanka Unites had made his longtime dream of speaking with his favorite icon a reality. Jayasuriya did not fail to impress as he answered every question from the star-struck students with care and deliberation. Afterwards, each team had the opportunity to have their photograph taken with the sports legend.

Day 4, Outdoors

As a part of their visit, India’s breakthrough team organized an experiential learning session for this afternoon. While the teams walked onto the spacious grounds of the MAS Institute, I spoke with Kau, a member of the breakthrough team, about his group’s work in Bangalore, India. The organization utilizes group games and outdoor activities to promote trust, cooperation, and other life skills that are necessary for leaders both in the corporate and personal spheres. Today, volunteers imparted their skills to the students by teaching them several experiential games such as the “Trust Pendulum,” an activity where people surround a central person while the figure in the middle must fall straight back and trust others to support him as he is passed around the group. A discussion followed on the thoughts of the students’ various reactions to the game. The outdoor activities allowed for an excellent segway into the sports for the evening, where the young adults once again enjoyed themselves with cricket, races, and other pastimes.

Day 4, Competition and Cooperation

Personal expression and creativity ruled much of the evening with the second art event of the conference. Tensions grew competitive as each team was presented with a small canvas on which to paint their envisioned future for Sri Lanka. After an appropriate time interval, the paintings were judged by their artistic, creative, and visionary, expression. The entire event was facilitated by Sabrina, SLU’s program coordinator, and the American team from Orlando, Florida. This period was one of the most energetic and crowded experiences of the conference so far. Almost all of the students had gathered in the lobby, and pockets of close-knit individuals worked hurriedly to finish their canvas for submission. The excitement and noise provided excellent representation of the community and spirit of the conference as a whole.

Day 4, The Concert Finale

The final night of entertainment featured a stellar line-up of Sri Lankan A-List stars. Ashanthi, Dushanth, Umara, and Umariya arrived at the conference hall after dark and began the final night of the retreat with the students’ exuberant approval. The night felt more like a concert than a performance since the singers expressed their gratitude to Sri Lanka Unites and even dedicated several of their songs to different groups including a surprising gospel tune for all of the international volunteers. Umara and Umariya sang several tracks while Ashanthi rapped and belted out her own personal style. Dushanth kept the crowd cheering with his style, charisma, and skillful imitations of Michael Jackson. The festivities ended with a final song in the traditional Sri Lankan style. The audience once again danced and sang along from start to finish of the concert, and everyone felt that it was an appropriate way to end a spectacular evening.

However, the night was not yet concluded since many of the students remained awake on the adrenaline of the moment. As the SLU staff let down their guard and allowed themselves some relaxation, several of the youth started their own dancing party outside the cafeteria, and soon a small crowd gathered to celebrate the impending end of a wonderful conference. The final full day, by any standard, has been a resounding triumph. An annonymous evaluator remarked that, "SLU’s perseverance and diligence in compiling a cohesive program on hope, leadership, and reconciliation have equated to a powerful and contagious movement. Their efforts have not fallen on deaf ears."

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