Sheela Lal

Sheela Lal graduated from MU in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Statistics and International Studies.  She applied to be a Fulbright Scholar in Sri Lanka and was awarded a full scholarship from 2012-2013. After arriving in Sri Lanka and doing initial research of Sinhala and Tamil films, she found a common theme of gender-based violence (GBV) and decided to “quantify GBV in Sinhala film and understanding the root of this behavior in Sinhalese Sri Lankan culture.” Sheela has been working since November 2013 for a social enterprise firm in India that focuses on underprivileged communities. In May 2014, she talked with the Fellowships Office and reflected on her experience with the application process and her time in Sri Lanka.

Sheela Lal
Sheela at Adam’s bridge, the islands between Sri Lanka and India

The application process was arduous because it seemed so vague. It is hard to really understand what the Fulbright experience could be like when you’re writing the application. Like many people, I wrote the application to give me a reason to immerse myself in various communities through a short-term research project. I knew that Sri Lankan cinema was not going to be my life’s work. Crafting an argument in three pages highlighting why my short-term interests are worth funding gave me the opportunity to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses and how those can work in my favor.

I think the hardest part was the background research. I wanted to present my research as part of a larger picture – that South Asian cinema is much more than popular Bollywood movies. I lived in DC while writing the application, so I utilized the Library of Congress to better understand the industry before using it as a sociological framework. Unfortunately, unlike Indian cinema (this includes regional cinema within the country), Pakistani, Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan cinema has very little scholarship and documentation. I ended up using the lack of resources as evidence for going to Colombo to gain access to people within the film industry and scholarship to do interviews.

I applied to Fulbright because it had the fewest strings attached. I could potentially study what I wanted, where I wanted, and have nine months to develop my interests.

Poster for Sheela’s talk about her Fulbright research at Centre for Poverty Analysis

My initial research project was going to look at national identity through film. I came up with this for the application after reading several news-blog articles about reconciliation efforts. I was accepted for this work. When I got to Colombo in October 2012, the universities were on strike for an indefinite amount of time, and the crux of my research was to utilize university students. I had to retool. I learned within two weeks of starting research that examining national identity wasn’t going to be feasible. I started from scratch, watching any movies I could, and finding a theme. Unfortunately, the theme was gender-based violence (GBV). I changed my research to quantify GBV in Sinhala film, and understanding the root of this behavior in Sinhalese Sri Lankan culture. I spent five months on this project, and after feeling emotionally burnt out, I started co-writing and pre-producing a short fictional film with a Sri Lankan friend.

Sheela participating in a conversation about film and development, December 2012

The most fulfilling part of my time in Sri Lanka was being able to really get to know a handful of Sri Lankans well. I worked closely with a filmmaker, volunteered with another group of Sri Lankans, and consulted for a prominent think tank. There are a lot of issues on the island, and I can honestly say that the reason I come back is for my friends. The big take away from my time in Colombo (and traveling throughout the island) is stepping out of the Western expatriate bubble is critical to understand the local nuances. I chose to come to Sri Lanka, and I knew it would be a huge disservice to my experience to isolate myself from its realities.

On the domestic end of Fulbright, I have been aggressive about encouraging people to apply and helping them with their essays. I wish that I had a recent alumnus to help me fine tune my essays, and I enjoy providing that help to Mizzou students and other friends.

Sheela lighting a candle at the One Billion Rising demonstration in Colombo

The big things I learned about cultural differences and exchange is to not talk about the US unless someone asks, and to know US foreign policy really well because you will be blamed for the role of the US in whatever region you’re in. With my friends and coworkers, I felt comfortable asking about minority rights issues in Sri Lanka, and then on the flip side, I would explain the American government’s treatment of Native Americans, Black, and Latino populations and discuss our immigration policies. It never was a gauge of whose country was better, but understanding that both cultures and politics have pros and cons.

I finished my Fulbright July 2013. I moved to Kolkata, India in November to work at iMerit Technology Services, a social enterprise focusing on livelihoods enabling in underprivileged communities, for ten months. My Fulbright in Sri Lanka gave me the connection for this job, and has provided a pretty seamless transition to completely different industry, expanding my career experience. I’m still pretty uncertain about what I want to do when I come back to the US, but I know that having the Fulbright experience will open a lot of doors, and for that I am eternally grateful.