Sri Lanka: From Dreams to Reality

Deanna Souther in Sri Lanka

Beyond the Brick
Study Abroad and Independent Travel Abroad Experiences

Discovering the world beyond the borders of the United States is a unique experience for students. Traveling during their college years greatly influences not only their education, but their outlook on life. Participating in a study abroad or independent travel abroad experience provides students with immeasurable personal and professional development opportunities.

 In the January issue, we profiled the NC State study abroad program in Ghana. This month, we are taking an in-depth look at an independent service learning opportunity in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
From Dreams to Reality

Deanna Souther, a senior from Statesville, N.C., had a dream that one day all elephants would be treated fairly. Even though her dream has not yet become reality, she spent June 2012 as a volunteer at the Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF) in Sri Lanka where she put her academic pursuits of animal science and non-profit studies to work. As a volunteer for MEF, Souther was assigned a specific elephant and trainer, called a Mahout, to work with on a daily basis.

“The first three weeks I was there, I spent a lot of time with the MEF foundation and my specific elephant Bandara,” she said. “He just stole my heart.  I snuck Bandara extra fruit.  He was one of the younger elephants there. He had been abused and had worked in the logging industry. When he arrived at MEF, you could see all of his ribs. I worked with him and thought him to be a very handsome devil. Once, I spent five or six days in the jungle without him and when I came back, he immediately wrapped his trunk around my arm. I thought I was going to cry. It was the most precious thing. They are so smart. They remember your scent.”

As part of her month long volunteer experience, Souther also worked with MEF to address the elephant and human conflict in Sri Lanka. She spent several days researching crops to ameliorate the constant clashes.

“Wild elephants venture into established farm fields taking food they like,” she said. “Farmers retaliate against the elephants with dangerous results where both people and elephants are harmed. MEF is working to alleviate the conflict by planting food in a buffer zone between the farmer’s land and the wilderness where the elephants live. If crops that the elephants do not like deter them from venturing into the farmer’s fields, then perhaps both people and elephants can be saved.”

Founded in 1999 by Sam Samarasinghe, an animal lover and elephant owner, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), MEF is the only non-profit certified organization working in Sri Lanka as an elephant sanctuary. The organization also provides education, medical services and facilities to improve the care, protection, and treatment of captive elephants throughout the country. Volunteers at MEF can participate in all aspects of the non-profit.

“I also got to travel around with the elephant vet to Buddhist temples, help out with religious parades and in a non-elephant related business way—helping out with business aspects of the elephants too,” Souther said. “They have their own agricultural and after school program where I taught about elephants and taught English.”

Volunteers for MEF live together in shared bungalows and Jungle Cabins for the extent of their service. Many volunteers travel from a variety of countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the United Kingdom to participate in the four aspects of MEF volunteer work: daily elephant care and non-profit administrative duties, eco-farming to grow produce for elephants and market sales, MVU or veterinary visit assistance, and education through teaching English and responsible conservation practices at after school clubs.

“Overall, from the trip, I was so excited to see the elephants, to see the Buddhist temples and to eat the food and I loved all of that I really did, but what I did not expect was that I would come away with such good relationships with the other volunteers,” Souther said. “I met and befriended a brother and sister from Denmark and am going to visit them. At MEF, we had people from all over, and all different age groups.  You get so close with these people and they all come at different times and stay for different lengths.”

As a result of her independent service learning opportunity in Sri Lanka, Souther confirmed her career direction after she graduates. “I definitely want to go into the non-profit, because of the people and the atmosphere,” she said. “Almost everyone I was working with there [MEF] were involved with non-profits and that set it up for me that is the vibe the direction I want to have for sure. I am so excited. It was the most amazing trip of my life.”

Not only was Souther’s career path fortified, she developed a new outlook on life. “I feel like I am hopefully more aware of how very privileged my life has been,” she said. “I’m not saying that in Sri Lanka everyone is poor, but once I was there, I wasn’t wearing makeup. I did not have a hair straightener with me. There is so much that we have that is so unnecessary. But, here [in America] it feels like a necessity. You can be totally happy with so much less. I come away from that with having a little more independence and a little more open-mindedness.”

Even though Souther traveled more than 9,000 miles to reach Colombo, Sri Lanka, she would definitely recommend the experience to more students. “Take it and run with it,” she said. “It will change your life. I cannot put into words how phenomenal this trip was for me. I cannot imagine my life without this experience. While this experience is not coordinated by NC State, it occurred during my college career and this will be one of those things I look back at as it was a turning point.”

To learn more about the Millennium Elephant Foundation, browse pictures of Bandara, or donate to the MEF’s efforts to help captive Sri Lankan elephants, visit their website at  www.millenniumelephantfoundation.com/.