Remarks by Chargé d’Affaires Robert Hilton – Signing of the MoU Between the Ministry of Education and the Peace Corps

Colombo, August 9, 2018

Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, State Minister V.S. Radhakrishnan, Professor Nayani Melagoda, Peace Corps Country Director Kris Besch, and other distinguished guests, good morning.  I am delighted to be here for the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Education and the Peace Corps.  Indeed, the Peace Corps ethos resonates deeply within our embassy, as several of our officers are in fact former Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs).

Sometime in the early morning of October 14, 1960, just hours after he had debated fellow presidential candidate Richard Nixon and weeks before he was elected President, John F. Kennedy made a historic trip to the University of Michigan’s Student Union.  I call it historic not merely because the University of Michigan is my alma mater, but because it was at the Union that then-candidate Kennedy posed a question to America’s youth that has been answered through the decades by generations of Americans, here in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

He asked the students, “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?  Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

Their answer, he said, would make the difference in how freedom could grow in the United States and across the globe.  “On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country,  I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.”  Their effort, he said, “must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”

Kennedy recognized that the strength of every nation lies not just in its youth, but in that generation’s idealism, its commitment to bettering the world, whether through improved agriculture, stronger skills for local entrepreneurs, or interactive teaching methods.

As the new Peace Corps Country Direct Kris Besch mentioned, today represents a renewal, not merely an introduction, of the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka.  We’re fortunate that some of the PCVs who served in Sri Lanka 50 years ago have shared their memories with us.  For instance, the Gelbaums worked to combat malaria, a huge problem at the time.  They wrote one day in 1968 that “at seven every morning, we open our front doors to a porch full of patients who, after spending their fifth or so night shivering with malaria fever, have decided to try some anti-malarial drugs.  So far, we have treated 500 people for malaria out of 1,500 persons in our colony.”

And the ties between PCVs and Sri Lanka are enduring ones.  Lloyd Chapman worked in Amparai in the 1960s on community agriculture.  After the 2004 tsunami struck, Lloyd persuaded the Peace Corps to send a crisis team and returned to Amparai himself, this time to work in the refugee camps that had been established to serve the displaced coastal population. No doubt the next generation of PCVs, which will be here to teach English, will nurture those same lasting bonds.  They will bring with them the opportunity to learn English and unlock all the doors to which English is the key.  We believe that mastery of English creates economic opportunity by increasing an individual’s employability in the global marketplace.  Understanding English also helps understand America, and our complex society and culture.  And we believe that the English language can serve as bridge between Sri Lanka’s linguistic communities, a common language of communication to increase mutual understanding.

The U.S. Embassy’s efforts to build English skills in Sri Lanka are not limited to Peace Corps.  Our English Access Microscholarship program, a two-year English and leadership course for teenagers from disadvantaged communities, has more than 2,000 alumni and 11 centers from the North to the South.  Every year, we provide at least one English Language Fellow (ELF), an expert in English learning, to a Sri Lankan educational institution for the academic year to assist with curricula or teacher training.  This academic year, we have ELFs in Colombo and in Jaffna.

Our English Language Specialists work on special projects, such as a needs analysis at Moratuwa University and train the trainers workshops at the Police College.  And the Fulbright Commission places six English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) at various institutions in Sri Lanka to work with students directly for an academic year.  Through our Teaching Excellence and Achievement program, we send inspiring Sri Lankan teachers to U.S. universities to study methodology, special needs, and gender-based education.  We conduct teacher training across Sri Lanka:  our goal is to reach at least a 1,000 teachers and student teachers each year.  Likewise, our American Center in Colombo and American Corners in Jaffna, Kandy, and Matara host English courses for youth and teachers.

This coming year we look forward to our new project, English on Wheels.  The U.S. Embassy has been one of the key promoters of the Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association (SLELTA).  Recently, we donated a bus equipped with engaging tools and technology to SLELTA that will conduct week-long programs in schools across Sri Lanka to encourage children to learn English.  The English Teachers Association will work closely with  Peace Corps to bring English to the most remote villages and introduce Sri Lankan youth to the opportunities it offers.

Peace Corps’ efforts will also complement USAID’s ongoing $12 million YouLead program.  YouLead increases the employability and the self-employment opportunities of youth in Sri Lanka by working with students, teachers, schools and educational institutions to improve the quality and delivery of vocational skills, related soft skills and career guidance counselling for youth.

As Kris highlighted, the signing of today’s Memorandum of Understanding builds on a strong foundation of collaboration and our common desire to see all of Sri Lanka’s citizens succeed.  We look forward to hearing the stories of friendship and success that the incoming volunteers will no doubt have to share.  A few weeks after his appearance at the University of Michigan, John F. Kennedy was elected President.  In his inaugural address a few months later, he gave us these famous lines:

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.  My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

With those sentiments to inspire us, let me welcome the Peace Corps back to Sri Lanka and once again thank our Sri Lankan partners for working with us in this great endeavor.  Thank you.