By Shihaam Hassanali
Vishaka Nanayakkara always knew she wanted to get into the field of Computer Sciences thanks to her deep love for ones and zeros. In fact, when she was in school in the late 80s, she was certain she wanted to become a computer scientist. Little did she know she would soon embark on a fulfilling journey that married her love for computer engineering with her love for teaching.
“No one knew what Computer Sciences were at the time,” she shares. “And, Sri Lankan universities didn’t have computer science programmes. You had to first do a Physical Science degree, and go elsewhere to do your IT degree.” Fortunately, in 1986, the University of Moratuwa started a Computer Science and Engineering programme, and with encouragement from her teachers at school, Vishaka scored a spot in the programme after her Advanced Level exams. It was halfway through her degree that she realised she didn’t want to become a scientist, but a teacher.
Sharing her wisdom, nurturing, and inspiring the brightest minds around her to be and do better are what Vishaka has dedicated nearly 27 years of teaching to. Revolutionising what it means to be a teacher, she encourages her students to take on new opportunities and never give up. “When people give up easily, it drives me crazy!” Vishaka says with a chuckle.
Not being treated differently
Growing up, Vishaka was never told not to do certain things because she was a girl. There were never gender-based roles or chores and she was always treated equally. When she moved schools from Galle to Visakha Vidyalaya, she felt the push to be independent even more. “Being in a girls-only environment really gave me that confidence because you didn’t know anything different. If you had something you had to do, you never relied on someone else, because everyone was on equal footing,” This experience worked to Vishaka’s advantage when she moved into a lecturer role at UoM.
Vishaka’s can-do approach to bettering the university, faculty, and her students led to a swift promotion as the Head of the Department of Computer Science of the Engineering Faculty at UoM. “I never questioned if I’d be able to do something. I always thought this is something that needs to be done and just did it!” she shares.
Stepping out of comfort zones is a part of growing up, evolving, and taking on new challenges. Vishaka has always been a firm advocate for constant growth and independent thinking. It has boggled her quite a bit why so many are resistant to change until she realised that fear of the unknown and of failure were driving factors. She solves this particular problem by leading through example.
When Sri Lanka faced the first wave of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown in 2020, many educational institutes and universities were fast considering an online teaching model to bridge the learning gap. While Vishaka was all for doing it, she was met with resistance from her own faculty who had reservations about teaching online. “When people don’t know what to do, they resist change,” she says, thoughtfully. Addressing this was her first course of action. She took the time and taught anyone willing to learn how to conduct entire lectures online utilising all the necessary tools. Today, UoM has data – free resources for all students, and even has exams online. “Be the change you want to be!” she enthuses.
Throughout her professional career, Vishaka has shaken up the IT industry, leading by example for students and peers alike. Her openness to learn from her students and younger colleagues no matter how small the idea is propels her forward with vigour. You see, Vishaka lives by her own code: as a teacher, you should always teach anyone willing to learn. Back in 2011, Vishaka was about six years into her tenure as Head of Department when the Trade Union went on strike. Although Vishaka agrees that it’s important the Government appreciates the services of its lecturers, she was not keen to take out any frustrations on the students. So despite the authority the Trade Union holds, she continued her classes outside of the university. And this did not go unappreciated.
To show their gratitude, all her students came together to put on a stellar cultural show, complete with a guest speaker, from first to final years. “They were very scared—scared that people might attack them or me. But despite this, they put this show together,” she says. Vishaka defied the norm and took a stand. This paid off when this same batch of students graduated earlier than everyone else.
Everything Vishaka does is to encourage her students to foster self-confidence, disrupt the norm, and never back down irrespective of your gender. Vishaka has always done this, but she says, “If I could tell my younger self one thing, it’s to believe in yourself.”
(The writer is the former Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. She created the country’s first ‘35 Under 35’ list of dynamic young Sri Lankan women making waves and leading the charge in their respective industries.)