01/24/2008, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Catholic priest enables the poor of every faith to get a university education

by Melani Manel Perera
Fr Nicholas Batepola is the founder of the Saravasi Seth Sevana Centre for Higher Education in the Archdiocese of Colombo. Hundreds of young people, who might not otherwise get an education, can graduate and hope for a better future. The school, which is appreciated by local Buddhists, needs however more financial aid to continue.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Christians and Buddhists, Sinhalese and Tamils, young men and young women from poor and marginalised families can hope for a better future thanks to a endeavours of a Catholic priest, Fr Nicholas Batepola, who set up the Saravasi Seth Sevana Centre for Higher Education in Jaela, in the Archdiocese of Colombo. Conscious of the obstacles that the poor must overcome to go to university, which is a fundamental tool for social advancement and development, Father Batepola through his institute has given hundreds of students a chance to get a university-level education for free.

The latest graduates, 26 students of which 14 Bachelors of Arts and 12 Bachelors of Commerce, got their degree on 19 January. Mgr Marius Peiris, auxiliary bishop of Colombo, and Prof Shantha K. Hennayake from the University of Peradeniya attended the graduation ceremony. AsiaNews was also present at the ceremony and was able to talk with Father Batepola about his centre.

“The Centre, set up in 1996, is a non-profit institution that offers university-level education to eligible students from economically disadvantaged families irrespective of their caste, race or creed,” Father Batepola explained.

“Today few university students come from the poorer classes and few of them are admitted to higher education. Among those only the most intelligent and determined do not give up hope,” he said during the ceremony. But “these young people know that education is their ticket to socio-economic advancement. They know that in a highly competitive society like ours education is the only way to get a job and dignity,” he added.

For Sumudu Anthony, a 27-year-old Catholic student from the last cohort of graduates, spiritual guidance and life skills were as important as the regular subjects taught at the Saravasi Seth Sevana Centre.

Indika Silva, 26 and Buddhist, said that she never dreamt that she might graduate given her family’s hard economic circumstances. But now “thanks to Father Batepola’s Centre” her “dream has been realised.”

In his address during the graduation ceremony, Prof Shantha K. Hennayake, a Buddhist, said that the Saravasi Seth Sevana was a “blessing” for those who cannot go to state-run universities since they can graduate from the Catholic Institute.

He also praised the school for “going beyond teaching regular subjects.”

“Use your knowledge and skills to build a peaceful society in Sri Lanka,” the professor said in concluding his address.

According to Father Batepola’s data, there are presently 418 students registered in the B.A. programme and 512 in the B.Comm. programme. Another 800 are enrolled in English language courses designed to help people improve their employment opportunities.

But running the school is not cheap—it takes about US$ 2,200 (€ 1,500) a month. Indeed the clergyman needs money.

“I have friends here and overseas who send some money, but it is not enough,” he said. “I appeal to those who believe in the work we are doing to help us financially.”

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