Departing President of University of Alberta donates $250,000 to increasing study abroad opportunities


The outgoing president of a Canadian university has donated $250,000 of her own money towards a fund to help home students pursue study abroad.

Indira Samarasekera, who is departing the post at the University of Alberta that she has held since 2005, says the money will go towards the cost of an international internship or voluntary placement.

It is hoped the fund will grow to $1m with further donations from businesses and the community sector.

“It is vital in this age of globalization that Canadian universities provide an international learning environment for our students,” Samarasekera said.

“Nothing better prepares a student to be a global citizen, and unlocks their potential to change the world, than an international experience.”

The Indira V. Samarasekera Global Student Leadership Fund aims to tackle the relatively low number of Canadian students who leave their home country to study. Only 3% of students go overseas, with 75% of these leaving to a country whose main language of study is English. The number is one of the lowest of the world’s leading economies in the OECD.

According to Karen McBride, president of the Canadian Bureau for Higher Education, this is “proving to be the Achilles’ heel in Canada’s aspirations for greater global engagement and competitiveness.”

Little research has been done to establish why exactly so few Canadians study overseas, but some organisations, such as the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, suggest cost and lack of awareness of the benefits may be factors.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed by policy-makers. In 2012, the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy recommended that 50,000 awards should be offered to Canadian students each year to study abroad over the following decade.

But so far little action has followed. Samarasekera’s donation is one of few financial packages that exist to tackle the problem.

The fund, the university says, will “enhance programs currently offering international experiences and enable more programs to offer such opportunities”. It will also add to a scholarship fund the president previously set up last year. Currently, more than 1,000 students from Alberta study and work overseas, with that number now expected to swell.

“We must never underestimate the power of education to uplift the lives of individuals—and through them, to change society for the better,” said Samarasekera.

“It is such a very great privilege for me now to be able to give back to the very institution that has filled my life with such personal and professional satisfaction and accomplishment.”

The generous personal donation is inspired by Samarasekera’s personal experiences of studying overseas. Samarasekera was born in Sri Lanka and studied Mechanical Engineering in her home country before winning the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to gain a postgraduate degree at the University of California in 1976. A year later she moved to Canada where she completed her PhD before moving into research.

She leaves her post at Alberta after completing two terms in charge. In that time, the university has forged new international relationships in India and Germany, and has seen an increase in international students studying at the university.

The University of Alberta was ranked 84th in the latest QS University Rankings, a leap of 12 places from the previous year. It has forged an impressive research-intensive reputation, and is home to almost 40,000 students, with 7,000 of those coming from international countries.

Britta Baron, associate vice-president of the University of Alberta, describes the president’s gift as “a tremendous example of President Samarasekera’s vision and commitment.”

“President Samarasekera is a role model for the life-changing impact of education abroad and the lasting benefits it can bring,”