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If you go
What: IPFW’s 46th commencement ceremony
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Memorial Coliseum
Cost: Free
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Arosha Perera holds the plaque she received for being named the Student of the Year for 2012 by the Indiana Council for Continuing Education. Perera, who is from Sri Lanka, is graduating today from IPFW with a bachelor‘s degree in general studies.

Determination trumps barriers

Mom of 2 left Sri Lanka to earn degree

On her way home from the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, it seemed Arosha Perera would never get the chance to earn a college degree in America.

But this afternoon, after months of planning, hard work and long nights of studying, she will walk across the stage at Memorial Coliseum and receive her diploma, joining 2,125 classmates as one of IPFW’s newest graduates.

A native of Sri Lanka, Perera’s first and second attempts to obtain a student visa ended with dismay as she waited six more months for the opportunity to reapply for a chance to travel to the U.S.

Perera, a mother of two young daughters who had worked for more than 15 years as a teacher, wasn’t the sort of student the embassy approved right away, she explained.

“Those were the barriers – my age, my kids, my job as a teacher,” she said.

The embassy reviewed her file, asking her repeatedly why she wanted to leave and whether she planned to return. She answered the questions cautiously, explaining that she had taken leave from her teaching position to obtain a U.S. degree and would be returning within five years.

“Finally, I decided if they would give me a visa, I will go. If not, I will stay here,” she said.

Then, in December 2010, she received word that her application had been approved. Still, she faced another difficult decision.

Should she leave her family behind? Or should she stay in her home country and miss the opportunity to expand her education?

With hugs and promises that her two daughters and husband would soon follow her to America, she boarded a plane.

Perera’s younger sister moved from Sri Lanka to the U.S. in 2002 and later ended up in Fort Wayne. It was her sister’s encouragement that helped Perera succeed and led her to IPFW, she said.

Tough next steps

Another challenge arose as Perera began applying for classes and selecting a degree. She hoped to study elementary education, but as the department calculated her transferable credits, only a few would transfer from the education she’d received in her home country.

To keep her education timeline on track, Perera switched her major to general studies with a minor in psychology and started classes.

Her first few weeks were difficult, not only because she faced cultural and language challenges, but also because she arrived in Indiana in early January – in the middle of a snowstorm.

For the months prior to her arrival, Perera had daydreamed with her daughters about how the snow might feel and how exciting her adventure might me.

“Then I saw the snow, and said ‘oh no, this weather does not suit me and I should go back,’ ” Perera said, smiling at the thought. “I missed my family and thought they would never get a visa. And the weather, it was terrible.”

The first two months went by and Perera debated returning to Sri Lanka.

“I just thought ‘oh my goodness, what have I done to my life? I should go back,’ ” she said.

But through all her frustration, she excelled in her studies. Her first semester grades included three A’s and a B.

After her first semester, Perera decided it was time for her family to join her and, in June, they did. She was thrilled to have her husband, Saman, and daughters Virginia, 11, and Shenova, 9, join her.

She enrolled her daughters at Whispering Meadows Elementary. Although they had learned English and could communicate, they struggled to understand the Midwestern accent, she said.

Perera put her studies on hold as she worked with her daughters, helping them understand the culture and spending hours working on their homework with them.

“They had lots of homework, so I had to concentrate on their studies first and when they would go to sleep, I would start on my studies,” Perera said.

Nevertheless, she continued her studies at IPFW, finishing her degree in five semesters and compiling a 3.42 grade point average.

Earlier this year, Perera was named the 2012 Student of the Year, an award given annually by the Indiana Council for Continuing Education. Perera was the first international student nominated by IPFW to receive the award, said Sandy McMurtrie, academic advisor for the division of continuing studies.

As part of the award requirements, Perera had to volunteer on campus and in her community.

Her volunteer activities have included working at Turnstone Center for Children and the Indiana Buddhist Temple’s Center for Meditation. She also volunteers at her daughters’ elementary school and her church, as well as tutoring other students at IPFW’s Learning Center.

On Monday, her excitement about graduation was just beginning to set in, but she was experiencing a feeling that she’d only dreamed about from her home in Sri Lanka.

“I’m proud,” she said, grinning as she removed the plastic wrap from her Student of the Year plaque and ran her hand across the engraved letters depicting her name. “I’m proud of myself. I did it.”