Thursday, August 11, 2011

Future Leaders Conference Season 3: Day 1

The Arrival

At 8:15 am, the SLU van rolled up towards the gate of Trinity College. With the arrival of the first day of the Future Leaders Conference, there was not a moment to lose. Sri Lanka Unites promptly set about preparing for the students impending presence. By 9:00, young leaders from every district descended upon the college in droves, often looking tired and nervous about the days to come. Though the first half of the day was devoted entirely to registration, the SLU team needed to move quickly to put the students at ease and move them into their rooms. Classrooms at Trinity had been previously converted to house students for the duration of the conference. Theresa Bennett, Thilini De Visser, and all those who worked at the front desk had their work clearly defined as they the met and registered over 600 students through the course of the day. By 3:00, the students had finished arriving and had settled into their rooms. Shortly thereafter, they began the trek to Asgiriya stadium where the opening ceremony was to be held.

Meanwhile, the cricket grounds were humming with activity. The majority of the SLU staff members had been directing preparations for the opening ceremony since 9:00 am to introduce the students to the fully revamped Future Leaders Conference. By the time the youth arrived, the covering for the marquee was in the final stages of construction and the stage electronics were being patched. With so much happening, no one was left without a role for long. International volunteers kept themselves busy arranging 700 chairs in consecutive rows in front of the stage while the npiptv crew worked steadily to devise their own studio within the conference room overlooking the grounds. The equipment they furnished has allowed live-streaming of the conference for the first time. Currently, members of the diaspora and others all over the world will have the ability to witness the change in Sri Lanka first hand. After a 30 minute delay due to technical difficulties, the seats were filled, and the speakers were primed for the third season of the Future Leaders Conference.

The Opening Ceremony

At 5:30 pm, the Future Leaders Conference Season 3 began. With hundreds of people watching, Sri Lanka Unites screened a video showcasing the cause of reconciliation. Like a tree that needs roots to grow, peace and healing need to place their foundations in the cultural perceptions of the people. Prashan proceeded to introduce the conference and welcome the students to the largest ever annual gathering put on by Sri Lanka Unites. Once again, the youth had defied expectations and agreed to invest in the future of their country without relying on the failed stereotypes of the past.

As a sign of respect to the nation and the cause of reconciliation, all the students joined in a rendition of the national anthem. Representatives from all parts of the island and abroad walked to the front to participate in a traditional candle lighting ceremony. No Sri Lankan should feel that they are irrelevant within their country, and all citizens should be proud of their national heritage. Once everyone had taken their seats, the Trinity College principal addressed the audience. The civil war had taken its toll, and principal made it clear that he had seen firsthand the devastation that war could bring. The time is ripe for a new generation of Sri Lankans to engage the well-being of their nation. The country cannot afford to wait for others to take the initiative. The future of the nation belongs to the youth, and they must rise up to meet the opportunity that has been given to them. As SLU staff member and announcer Selyna stated, “It is diversity and not division that we have in Sri Lanka.”

This year’s Future Leaders Conference possesses an unparalleled number of international delegates and members of the Sri Lankan diaspora. As a representation of the international community’s solidarity, the President of Sri Lanka Unites Australia, performed a traditional Sri Lankan dance. While many volunteers hail from various Western nations, Kenya, South Africa, and the Congo were also represented. Notable Sri Lankans were also present. Among them was Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, the former under-secretary general of the UN and one of Sri Lanka Unites’ earliest supporters.

Themes, Teams and Tunes

Though the inaugural session was over, the excitement had only just begun to build. SLU staff member Ramzi Zain Deen made a hilariously hyped entrance and proceeded to review the conference’s rules and regulations, likening himself to a major general. As the lights accented the stage in dim red hue, the screen came alive to play the team introduction video and showcase the groups that were to become the core facilitators of friendship and cooperation for the rest of the conference. Old teams such as the Colombo Chargers, the Galle Gladiators, and the Batticoloa Bandits made a return appearance, while ten new teams debuted to accommodate the sheer quantity of participants in this year’s conference. Soon, students were proud to be a part of teams like the Gampaha Gators, Mattara Magicians, Ratnapura Rhinos, and the Ampara Astros. To smooth over the initial insecurity of the students, each team had been assigned three volunteers with at least one trilingual member per team. As night overtook day, the conference concluded with some exciting dance music to further lighten the mood. The students informally congregated by their team to become acquainted with their newfound peers and, perhaps, to begin forming some lifelong friendships. From that point onwards, participants would no longer be organized their schools. Instead, all activities are coordinated through the teams which incorporate students of every religion and ethnicity.

With the stadium shrouded in darkness, the students returned to Trinity College where a warm dinner and some well-deserved sleep awaited them. The SLU staff itself was posted in various locations around the city. While some opted to stay at Trinity to look after the students, the international volunteers remained at the guest house that they had inhabited the previous day. After a rough beginning, Sri Lanka Unites was obviously excited about the potential that the first day had revealed. The atmosphere was comfortably relaxed as we unwound and discussed the future opportunities that faced Sri Lanka Unites. As for the present, never before had so many students representing such a vast swath of the population assembled in one venue. We retired for the night on a hopeful note, knowing that the first full day of activities awaited us in the morning.

The conference is being LIVE-STREAMED for the first time! From Wednesday the 10th through Saturday the 13th, you can follow it at www.

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