|Two years after this photo was taken, Jessica Diebert Vechbanyongratana is back in Sri Lanka, this time as a recent Whitman graduate who is continuing her studies as a Fulbright Scholar. Others in the photo are I.G. Sumanasena, a Sri Lankan native who assists with the ISLE foreign study program, and Whitman/ISLE alumni John Scripps (far left) and Daniel Kent. Now a doctoral student, Kent also studied in Sri Lanka as a Fulbright Scholar.|
WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Five months after graduating from Whitman College and just a few months after getting married, Jessica Diebert Vechbanyongratana finds herself in a far-away land, separated from her new husband until next June.
Given the circumstances, however, she isn't complaining about the somewhat rocky start to her married life.
Diebert Vechbanyongratana, who graduated magna cum laude in May, is one of about 800 U.S. scholars who were awarded Fulbright Scholarships this summer to travel overseas and conduct research in a variety of academic and professional fields.
Diebert Vechbanyongratana, an Asian studies major at Whitman, is in Sri Lanka to study problems of a more serious nature facing the young women of that island nation. Her research, which began after Sri Lanka's Oct. 10 parliamentary elections, is focused on a political-economic structure that has created large numbers of well-educated people, many of them women, who have few opportunities for employment equal to their skills.
Diebert Vechbanyongratana, a 1995 graduate of Fairview High School (Boulder, Colo.), visited Sri Lanka twice previously as part of her undergraduate studies at Whitman.
Her latest research will include extensive interviews with several groups of Sri Lankan women, including Peradeniya University students, primary and secondary students at Mahamaya Girl's College, and female residents of several rural areas. Urban and rural differences in educational opportunities and career expectations is one of her interests.
To what extent are her Sri Lankan counterparts disillusioned and discouraged by their limited career and professional opportunities? "That's what I'm here to find out," Diebert Vechbanyongratana said.
She also plans to examine, in detail, Sri Lanka's economic development process over the past 50 years by reviewing relevant publications. Two large collections of such materials are available at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Kandy and the National Archives in Colombo.
Points of interest in her study include understanding Sri Lanka's economic development in the context of regional and international frameworks and in terms of reigning theoretical models. She also wants to trace the initial absence and later emergence of gender issues in the country's development efforts. Her overall goal is to gain a better understanding of the "big picture within which issues of women's employment in Sri Lanka are formed."
On the surface, Sri Lanka seems like an unlikely haven for gender discrimination in the fields of education and employment. Women there have had equal voting privileges for decades, and Chandrika Kumaratunga became the country's first female president in 1994. Three decades earlier, her mother had served as the world's first female prime minister.
"One thing that is important to recognize, however, is that many of the women involved in politics come from political families," Diebert Vechbanyongratana said. "Although there are examples of women in positions of power, most women do not have the family connections or monetary resources necessary to achieve the same status. As far as I can tell, the majority of women find that employers prefer to hire males into managerial positions and other higher paying white-collar jobs, while women are preferred for secretarial and other 'female' jobs."
Sri Lanka's educational system sets a regional standard in that its government pays for studies through the university level. Nonetheless, as she adds, "education still tends to be uneven between males and females. Men tend to be trained for the professions while women tend to follow courses that are not supported by the current economy."
While exploitation of women has been a common theme in her previous research, over the next several months Diebert Vechbanyongratana hopes to focus primarily on the contributions women have made to the Sri Lankan economy. "I want to focus on how development planners in Sri Lanka have pushed women into 'productive' activities that are not necessarily commensurate with their educational attainments."
Diebert Vechbanyongratana's interest in all things Asian, especially women's issues, began in the summer of 1993 when she visited Japan for six weeks through a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Boulder Valley School District. After graduating from high school, she spent the next year in Thailand in a Rotary International exchange program.
Soon after enrolling at Whitman, she declared her Asian studies major and polished off courses ranging from Japanese language & literature to the history of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. She spent the fall of her junior year in Sri Lanka, completing a foreign- study semester at Peradeniya University and conducting an independent study project on women in that country's handloom industry. She then returned to Sri Lanka the next summer, funded by one of Whitman's Perry Research Scholarships, to examine government policies aimed at generating foreign earnings through the "export" of Sri Lankan housemaids to the Middle East. Her research eventually led to her honors thesis, titled "Women and Sri Lanka's Structural Adjustment Policies."
Based on her undergraduate accomplishments, Diebert Vechbanyongratana's selection as a Fulbright Scholar was anything but surprising to Whitman faculty members. "Without question, Jessica is one of the very finest students I've had the pleasure to work with," associate professor of religion and Sri Lankan scholar Jonathan Walters says. "She is incredibly bright, a scholastic overachiever in every sense of the term. She's also a very nice young woman, a wonderful person."
After learning of her Fulbright selection in late June, she and Panya "John" Vechbanyongratana were married in early August in Boulder, where they had met a few years earlier. The couple traveled to Thailand in September to visit his family in Bangkok for a month. From there, she headed to Sri Lanka to begin her research while her husband returned to Boulder, where he works as an information systems manager. He came to the U.S. in 1992 and later finished his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado.
At this point, Diebert Vechbanyongratana doesn't expect to return the U.S. until her research in done next June. Her husband plans to visit her in Sri Lanka, however, in February. She hopes to eventually publish and/or present her Fulbright research in one or more academic settings. Her long-range plans include additional post-graduate studies of women's employment issues in the developing world. She is fluent in three languages - Sinhalese, Japanese and Thai.
Dave Holden, Whitman News Service, (509) 527-5902
Jessica Diebert Vechbanyongratana