Inside USD

Island Harmony

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

This reflection was written by School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) students Sophie Abdennabi, Megan Kennedy, and Vi Nguyen. The three students traveled to Sri Lanka this summer as part of the SOLES course, “Community Models of Leadership: From Noticing to Mindful Action.” The course focused on the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, an island-wide integrated community development program and the largest people’s organization in Sri Lanka.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Gandhi

This quote captures the essence of our journey, the crux of our learning, and the depths of our growth in Sri Lanka. In June 2012, 18 souls ventured to this island off the coast of India to engage in community development and social empowerment. We journeyed to Sri Lanka through a School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) course called “Community Models of Leadership: From Noticing to Mindful Action.”

This class is the first of its kind and focused on the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. Sarvodaya, which means “awakening of all,” is one of the world’s largest grassroots organizations and is composed of over 15,000 villages. Influenced by Buddhist and Gandhian thought, the movement consists of volunteers and villagers working side by side to assist villages in building their own self-empowerment for continued improvement. These work camps are instrumental in their ability to cultivate empathy and bridge the gap between status, gender, education and privilege. Ultimately, these camps help pull Sri Lankans together, reminding us of the strength and power of the people, and the gift of service and giving, or dana.

In an effort to build and understand the power of community in this social movement, we participated in Shramadana work camps and stayed with host families in the village of Udagama. Our work included the completion of a community center, clearing brush from roads, and painting a large canopy the village will use to generate revenue through rental fees. We also took part in daily village life by eating, cooking, shaving coconuts, laughing, dancing, and even bathing (while wearing a sarong!) with our village families.

As you might expect, we went into this experience filled with mixed emotions. It goes without question that the times when we were most fearful and uncomfortable were the times when we grew the most. This was most clearly illustrated with our experience of bathing in the jungles of Udagama. For many of us, we had never bathed by a well with a bucket and sarong. With our host mothers and sisters graciously teaching us the simplicity of this necessity, this discomfort quickly became our norm. It was in these moments of cleansing our bodies that we also cleansed our souls and allowed ourselves to let go of our perceived comforts and embrace the love and sense of community coming from the village.

This was the first time a group of University of San Diego students traveled to Sri Lanka and engaged in this level of cultural immersion. As such, we found ourselves not only clearing roads, but paving the road for future USD international travelers and future budding communities linked through leadership and service. The offering of this course is a testament to the openness and diversity of the USD community, and it also serves as an acknowledgement of the new communities emerging in our global society, regardless of language or political barriers. This course was taught by Dr. Cheryl Getz, Associate Professor in Leadership Studies, and Crystal Dujowich, Doctoral Student in Leadership Studies, along with community partner Elisa Sabatini, Executive Director of Via International (

We came away from this experience feeling more self-aware and self-empowered, and at the same time, very humbled. Through this emersion, we learned how we may better embody the Middle Way, a Sri Lankan concept which recognizes the delicate balance between self-indulgence and self-modification.

We also came away with the understanding that we have much to learn from other people and other cultures, not only in our own community at USD, but in the communities around the world. The service we were able to give and the sense of community we felt in return can never be taken away from us. Humankind is collectively demanding critical change, and from this trip, we have more insight on how service and leadership go hand in hand to create this change.

We now have an understanding that each of us has gifts that can be generated from our human energy. Our challenge to ourselves and to the USD community is to identify the gifts that we individually and collectively hold, and to continue giving to others with the hope of one day reaching the goal of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, the “awakening of all, without exception.”

* Via International partnered with SOLES on this student experience

— Sophie Abdennabi ‘13, Megan Kennedy ‘13, and Vi Nguyen ‘13

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