Silicon Valley's gift to Sri Lanka

Institute opens doors for motivated students

by Lisa M. Krieger

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka - Civil war ended Singam Theepan's education in the eighth grade. His future grew even dimmer several years later, when shrapnel lacerated his leg, requiring amputation.

But a new technical institute created by expatriate engineers and scientists from Silicon Valley has opened doors for Theepan and other motivated youths in this isolated northeast region of the island nation.

"I thought I would always have to rely on my parents,'' said Theepan, 26, a mason and homemaker. "Now I'll be able to take care of them.''

He had never seen a computer until two years ago when he came to the Vanni Institute of Technology, named for the Vanni district of the country. First he needed to learn how to use a mouse and keyboard. Then he needed to become proficient in English, the language of the institute's lectures and training manuals.

Now Theepan is taking university-level classes in electronics, software development, database management and other computer-related skills -- all desperately needed by this war-torn nation.

VanniTech, as it is known, was conceived in 2002 by Jey Surier, a San Jose software engineer now with Cisco, formerly of 3Com and start-ups Chipcom Corp. and Terayon Communications.

Born in the northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna, Surier fled as a youth in 1982, as conflict escalated between the minority Hindu Tamils and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. In 2002, after 60,000 deaths, the two factions signed a cease-fire agreement. In this tenuous peace, Surier wanted to rebuild his homeland.

He turned for help to a group of Sri Lankan emigres called the International Tamil Technical Professionals Organization. The independent and non-profit agency of volunteers based in San Jose uses members' expertise to help rebuild the northeast region of Sri Lanka, where most of the Tamils live.

The response was prompt and generous. Within the first six months of establishing the institute, academic and high-tech professionals donated the necessary $100,000 for the first year's operation, as well as their services.

``Many, many, many good students couldn't go to the university because of the war,'' said the organization's chairman, Ratnam Sooriyakumaran, a materials science researcher with IBM in Milpitas. ``We figured it was a good place to start teaching.''

When Surier arrived, the Vanni region was still reeling from the war. An estimated 150,000 displaced civilians had sought refuge there, joining the 250,000 struggling natives. The town had been heavily shelled, and surrounding fields and paddies were littered with land mines. Many of the region's young men and women had been recruited to fight for the Tamil military.

Surier leased the property for $500 a month. ``When I went there, it was a broken-down building with bullet holes,'' he said. ``There was damage from a shell blast on the second floor. It had a leaking roof and no ceiling.''

A long haul

Construction tools and materials had to be hauled in on the long and badly damaged Highway A9, a two-lane road closed for 12 years during the war. And materials had to clear two military checkpoints: one belonging to the Sinhalese government, the other to the Tamils.

Opened in June 2003, VanniTech now has the official blessing of both the government and the rebels.

The one-year curriculum, course outlines and syllabus were designed in the Bay Area, with help from Microsoft volunteers from Seattle.

``It is a classic case study of how diasporas can contribute to the reconstruction of their motherland,'' Nimalan Karthikeyan of the United Nations Development Program wrote in an agency report.

Located on a manicured green campus at the end of a dusty alley, past abandoned bicycles and wandering chickens, VanniTech is a high-tech oasis in a low-tech village. Neat paths crisscross the campus's lawns. In a town where electricity is intermittent, phones are rare and even the hospital lacks air conditioning, the classrooms in Vannitech's neat stucco buildings are clean and cool.

Its software lab is filled with Pentium 4 computers. Its language lab features CDs like ``Getting Ahead: A Business Course in English'' and DVDs like ``The Godfather.'' Students live in an attractive dormitory.

The campus now consists of lecture halls, labs, administrative offices, an employment center, cafeteria, gym and hostel, and a library with more than 15,000 books. It has complete intranet service with e-mail, database servers and wireless connectivity.

Its dozen lecturers -- some visiting, some members of the permanent staff who were trained at universities in Sri Lanka, India and London -- teach electronics, software, English and networking, with advanced classes in subjects like logic design, circuit analysis and wireless communications. By the time they graduate, students will be able to write business letters and essays in English, and give short speeches in English.

Generators needed

The town's low-voltage electricity means that two diesel generators are needed to supply power to VanniTech's server. And Internet access is still dial-up, a source of frustration to the staff and students. School administrators have asked the Sri Lankan government to approve the shipping and installation of satellite equipment, so far without luck.

Tuition is $150 a class, in a region where 80 percent of the population lived on less than $100 a month even before the tsunami. Scholarships are available.

Sixty students graduated this year; 60 more have been accepted for next year out of a pool of 180 applicants. Students must commit to working for two years in the Vanni region after graduation. In a year, it will expand into a two-year college with a broader curriculum. It has bought 150 acres nearby for a new campus, and by 2010 hopes to have 1,000 students.

After the December tsunami, VanniTech provided software needed to track the inventory of medicines and other health care supplies of the Center for Health Care, a local charity that coordinates regional medical relief efforts.

It also helped the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization create automated forms for information-gathering at surviving villages and refugee camps.

Graduates will take jobs with local businesses or non-governmental agencies. One student will stay to work on an outsourced project for Computer Zone Consulting of Minneapolis, Minn.

VanniTech's continued growth depends on emigre support and aid from agencies like U.S. Agency for International Development, UNDP and the World Bank. And it depends on continued peace.

Its students are already proof of its success, said Surier.

``With this education, I can do anything I want,'' said Theepan. ``This gave me the only opportunity to progress in this life.''

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

Additional information about VanniTech can be found at www.vanni.org . More information about the International Tamil Technical Professionals Organization can be found at www.ittpo.org . ITTPO's mailing address is 3106 Pepita Court, San Jose, Calif. 95132.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at lkrieger@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5565.

Mercury News, San Jose, California

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Posted June 24, 2005