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From my desk to yours: Amila Gunawardana from Sri Lanka

Posted: 31 July 2020

Sri Lanka, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact, Linkages,

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are sharing the experiences of Australia Awards alumni and scholars while they navigate a new normal.

Whether working or studying from home, schooling children while also juggling professional duties, or providing frontline COVID-19 support, these scholars and alumni open up about their struggles, silver linings and dreams for the future.

The reflections below come from alumna Amila Gunawardana in Sri Lanka. Amila undertook an Australia Awards Short Course on Sustainable Tourism Development in 2018 and she now runs her own travel business.

Can you tell us about your current role, what you are up to and how you are contributing to your country’s development?

“I started my own travel company based in Sri Lanka called Go Ceilão in 2018. Since the Easter terrorist attacks in Colombo in April 2019, recovery of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka has been slow. The COVID-19 pandemic that began in December 2019 has affected travel globally, with further consequences for Sri Lanka. However, I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. ‘The pearl of the Indian Ocean’ will soon be a popular place to visit once more. With about 20 years of experience in leading travel companies, I am currently working with Trincomalee District Youth Development AHAM to develop key performance indicators for community-based tour products in the Trincomalee District. I believe Trincomalee has many unique experiences to offer and Sri Lanka will be ready to warmly welcome tourists again in the hopefully not-too-distant future.”

Alumna Amila Gunawardana receiving her Australia Awards Short Course certificate. Featured here with Professor Noel Scott from Griffith University (left) and Tom Davis, First Secretary (Development Cooperation), Sri Lanka and Maldives, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

How did your Australia Awards Short Course help you get to this point in your career?

“Australia Awards gave me the courage to follow my passion of encouraging travel and tourism between Australia and Sri Lanka. The Short Course helped me understand what Sri Lanka has to offer in terms of tourism and how best to sustain this potential for generations to come. The knowledge gained helped me direct my time and energy into making this new venture a success. Through Australia Awards, I gained the courage to organise the very first international cycling event in Sri Lanka: Everesting 2019 (‘Everesting’, an Australian concept, is an event in which cyclists ride a hill repeatedly until they climb 8,848m, the height of Mount Everest). This promoted tourism and strengthened relationships between the two countries. Additionally, I arranged a workshop for the Sri Lankan women’s rugby fraternity with Australian female rugby player, Louise Burrows, to encourage and motivate the players. Through the Short Course I gained confidence, and built relationships and friendships that have helped me push beyond my boundaries.”

How did you find the ‘working from home’ experience?

“Working from home was actually a really positive experience for me. I believe the key to successfully working from home is self-discipline. Being able to wake up at my normal hours, setting a routine or timetable, and having a designated workspace were some of the key areas that I focused positively on.”

“I disciplined myself to avoid the three greatest temptations: the refrigerator, TV and bed. I achieved this due to the strict timetable I followed. My time at home also made me appreciate some of the greatest things in life, such as family, having a place to live and having adequate food. Most importantly, it has taught me not to take the people we love for granted. We should cherish every moment we spend with one another, no matter if it is a work colleague or a friend, because you never know when it will be the last time you see them.”

Amila at her home office, where she has continued to manage her travel company, Go Ceilão

What have you done (outside of your work) to look after yourself and keep your mind active?

“I have been doing quite a few activities to keep my mind and body active. I took up reading again. The two books I would like to recommend are Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell and Mindset: Changing the Way you Think to Fulfill your Potential by Dr Carol S Dweck. I have also been participating in tourism-, finance- and technology-related webinars organised locally and internationally (including from Australia) in order to better understand the global situation. I exercise daily, cycle when possible, engage in gardening, play badminton with my daughter and walk my dog. I communicate with my customers and industry partners on a weekly basis. I also speak to my friends and family more regularly now through Zoom.”

“Furthermore, as the Service Projects Chairperson for Rotary Club of Colombo Central, I actively assisted the community by providing 50 Tamil families in Kotte, Sri Lanka’s administrative capital, with dry rations and vegetable packs. Our club also donated a walk-through sanitation chamber to the Kirulapone Police Station in Colombo, Sri Lanka.”

What were you able to learn while you were required to stay at home?

“I learnt how to live well with my husband! This was a new skill for us both—our work schedules before the lockdown kept us so busy, we had never spent so much quality time together… ever! I also learnt new technologies and how almost everything can be done online, thanks to Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype and mobile banking. I also learnt to host Zoom webinars for more than 100 participants based locally and internationally.”

To keep active outside of work, Amila has been exercising daily, cycling when possible, engaging in gardening, playing badminton with her daughter and walking her dog

Do you have any tips to offer fellow alumni on working remotely and living well during these uncertain times?

“My advice for my fellow alumni is to stay positive and be grateful for what you have. Learn to apply self-discipline. Pray. Take this time to look at your finances and restructure them, if necessary. And most importantly: laugh… a lot!”

What is something you hope to achieve either professionally or personally when the COVID-19 crisis subsides?

“This crisis has made me realise how fragile life is and how easily the industry I work in can be affected. While I understand that many people are being affected in different ways, it has allowed me to analyse my risks and re-evaluate my long-term goals. Personally, I have used this time to plan and restructure my finances. I have taken stock of all my assets, bank accounts and other investments. By the end of the crisis I am hoping to have a better understanding of my financial position, which will help me to minimise my debt and save more.”