Stories to tell from my Internship in Sri Lanka

Faculty of Social Sciences
From the Field
Sri Lanka

By Larissa

Research Officer, World University Service Canada

Someone's feet in black shoes in front of a world map drawn on the floor
Clear blue water in the foreground and a small island in the background
"If I could offer any advice, it would be for every student to challenge the prevailing narrative in universities that urges you to find yourself and fit into predefined categories like academic, sporty, outgoing, or adventurous."

Larissa Johnson, International Economics and Development
Internship Country: Sri Lanka
Canadian NGO: World University Service Canada (WUSC)

How has participating in the FSS international internship enhanced your university experience?

The FSS international internship is not only a way to gain international experience, relevant work experience, character growth but most importantly it grounds your studies in something real. This experience working in an actual NGO throws you into the deep end and it's much easier to assess if this is the type of work you want to pursue in the future.

How did you decide on Sri Lanka as the place you wanted to study?

Deciding where you want to go can be the challenge, I chose Sri Lanka because of the organization that they would send me to. I had read studies done by CENWOR before in class and I desperately wanted to learn research so that is where my interest in Sri Lanka originated. I did not end up being able to do research because of the capacity of the organization and the current political and economic crisis of Sri Lanka but it was still the most amazing learning experience.

Why did you want to participate in an international internship as part of your university experience?

I was drawn to the program because it is not run like other ‘voluntourism’ programs. These are internships suitable for students' abilities where they are doing something useful and beneficial for the organization without taking a job from a local person nor funding from the government of Canada or an NGO. I have always wanted to have international work experience but it is hard to find ethical ways to do that. This internship is a way to ethically get a start in international development no matter your field.

Can you walk us through an average day in your internship?

An average day I wake up, shower and eat some local fruit like papaya, rambutan, mango, or coconut. I walk 15 minutes to work dodging traffic and watching the motorcycles weave through traffic. I arrive at work just before 9 and sign in, set up my desk and begin answering emails, then work on whichever project I have started. Then it is tea time at exactly 10 am and I get my milky tea. When I finish the work for CENWOR I will start searching for other funding opportunities and send the link along with a description of the call for proposal to my supervisors. Then it is time for lunch and I go buy Sri Lankan/British fusion pastries or share a Sri Lankan chicken curry with my coworkers. The second half of the day I either continue on the project if I have received feedback, start something new like a blog post, presentation, work on Monitoring and evaluation requirements from WUSC or I do school work if I do not have anything. I leave between 4 and 4:30 depending on how much work I have and return home. Then I will usually go visit friends, go to a cultural event, temple, explore alone, go to a street food market, the beach or one of the amazing malls. It is not fantastical or incredible everyday but I am learning everyday and always experiencing new things.

Any success stories from your internship or projects you’re particularly proud of?

Something I am particularly proud of is the seminar I planned and ran for international women's day on period poverty.  The United Nations Women this year have chosen the theme “Invest in women: Accelerate progress”. Period poverty in Sri Lanka is a massive issue and yet extremely underfunded. Period poverty affects women's participation in the school, workplace, family, and participation in religious activities. Without access to proper and preferred period products women are often left behind. 50% of Sri Lankan women reported not spending any money on period products in 2023, this is an astonishing number of women who were unable to afford or access these necessary products. Continuing from the UN Womens theme CENWOR focused on how to build projects that will get funding into period poverty.

Bringing together people from all different sectors, the seminar encouraged participants to identify the main barriers within this serious issue and innovate ways that we can get money to support women. As funding more often is put towards climate change, geopolitical conflicts, infrastructure, and economic stability, women have been left underfunded and under-noticed. When women are able to participate fully in the economy, workforce, etc then change follows, progress is made because systems become better suited for women and girls to be empowered. 

           The purpose of this seminar was to not only celebrate women's day but also to create this open dialogue on period poverty. It was a huge success and I was so happy when the conversation opened and I was able to write and submit a project proposal out of the information I learned.

What’s your favorite place in Colombo?

My favorite place in Colombo to relax or do work is park street mews. I have friends that work in the greek bistro and the italian place and they are the best food in Colombo. As much as I love Sri Lankan cuisine, sometimes you crave something that you eat normally at home and this street has always been a safe place to take a break. It has Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, French and Japanese food so you can get basically anything and it has these beautiful lanterns above it and is walking distance from my favorite temple, Gangaramaya Temple which has deities from each of the major religions in Sri Lanka to create a space of collective appreciation for the higher power. It is the most beautiful thing to see Buddah, Jesus, the Trimurti together and see all types of people entering the temple to respect the history and purpose of religion. They have the smallest Buddah statue in the world which is very cool.

Is there anything you did to immerse yourself in Sri Lankan culture?

I think Sri Lanka culture is so diverse depending on where you are. I tried my best to visit all the sections of Colombo and the cultural centers of the country but it is impossible to see it all when you work 5 days a week. Kandy was definitely where I saw a lot of cultural events but there are so many groups in Sri Lanka and they are each proud of thier culture and keep it alive strongly. Each section of Colombo and each village in the rural areas have unique foods, different looks, colours, religions etc. I became friends with locals and didn't shut myself in my home but I do wish I could have had more time to visit more places and learn the languages better to be more connected to the culture.

Do you have any advice that is lessons learned from the internship?

If I could offer any advice, it would be for every student to challenge the prevailing narrative in universities that urges you to find yourself and fit into predefined categories like academic, sporty, outgoing, or adventurous. These labels attempt to simplify the complex and ever changing nature of people into monolithic identities, which is fundamentally limiting. What I've learned is that the true beauty in life lies in embracing freedom and acknowledging the many facets of one's personality. You don't have to conform to just one mold; you can embrace all parts of yourself. Being honest with yourself about what truly brings you joy, rather than seeking validation or impressing others, life is much too short to live for creating an image of yourself. This internship has underscored the importance of breaking free from the competitive, prestige-driven mindset ingrained in Western capitalist culture. Instead, focus on discovering your passions and finding fulfillment in them. Embrace every aspect of who you are without reservation. I know there are so many challenges and moments where we feel trapped, but remember that it's okay to prioritize your happiness, share laughter, and enjoy simple pleasures. Nothing is permanent, and people are not constantly scrutinizing your every move, so life for yourself.