Australia’s earliest international student

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A Colombo Plan alumnus returns to UNSW. JYOTI SHANKAR reports

“Sixty years ago when I boarded a BOAC Skymaster flight for Sydney I had my one newly-tailored blue suit in my bag and very little idea of Australia, beyond an excited sense of optimism for what the future might hold. I’d never before left Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and, of course, I’d never been on a plane. I had grown up in a rural village where we took the buggy cart to school. And I hadn’t had much time to get used to the idea either. When the telegram delivery boy tracked me down on his bicycle at a tennis court in Colombo in 1952, I tore the envelope open to discover my application for one of the very first Australian university scholarships for Asian students had been successful and that I’d be leaving for five years within a fortnight.”

This is 82-year-old Tennyson Rodrigo reminiscing about his journey to Australia as one of this country’s earliest international students, who came here under the ‘Colombo Plan’. He returned to Sydney last month on a special invite to attend a gala dinner at his alma mater, the University of New South Wales. UNSW itself has come a long way from the makeshift corrugated-iron classrooms of Tennyson’s days, to one of Australia’s premier educational institutions with state-of-the-art buildings and programs. The Colombo Plan, under whose aegis Tennyson came to Sydney, has since brought over 20,000 students into the country, changing their lives forever and making a substantial impact both locally and in their home countries.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell delivered the keynote address on international education at the 60-year reunion on November 22 to an audience that included Colombo Plan alumni dating back to the first year of the scheme in 1952. Tennyson was the only person they could trace back from that year.

In the fifties, after the Second World War ended, countries were coming out of their colonial shackles and trying to rebuild their economies. The White Australia policy was slowly being dismantled. Australia wanted to move ahead, change perceptions and engage in a meaningful South-South cooperation. At the Commonwealth Conference of Foreign Ministers held in Colombo in January 1950, the Colombo Plan was formulated to strengthen the economic and social development of the countries in the region, and promote the transfer and sharing of technology and developmental experiences. Original signatories to the Plan were Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Malaya and North Borneo, but later the membership expanded to 25 countries.

Tennyson won one of the first Colombo Plan scholarships to study chemical engineering, and at 22, found himself bound for Sydney.  Everything was new and different. Milkshakes and baked beans on toast soon became part of his diet. He soon discovered that his tailored suit with its huge lapels wasn’t quite right, so he saved up his allowance to buy a blue pin-striped suit from Gowings which helped him sail through the next five years.

“There were plenty of other new arrivals on campus, mostly Europeans in the first wave of post-war migration, but I did not encounter racism,” recalls Tennyson. “Some looked at me strangely but not with hostility, often displaying a genuine curiosity about Asian cultures”.

Brown-skinned people were rare those days and Tennyson soon became a mini celebrity with his musical talents on the sitar, violin and tabla. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a front-page picture of him attending a ball. He was invited by ABC Radio to play the sitar and featured on the cover of ABC Weekly. The Indian High Commissioner, KC Sengupta’s wife Manjula was accomplished in Rabindra Sangeet and Tennyson was often called upon to accompany her with his instruments.

His association with the Indian community was strong during his stay in Sydney, and he fondly recalls the staging of the Tagore dance drama Chitrangadha with a cast of Australian, Sri Lankan and Indian students. They lived at the International Friendship Centre at Drummoyne, which became a little microcosm of cultures.

“The mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Filipino, Indonesian, Fijian, Papuan and other students, as well as their different religions, was itself unusual in Australia,” says Tennyson.

He is now pleased to see how multiculturalism is such an integral part of Australian society these days. When leaving, he was presented with a book about Kangra Valley paintings of India by the then Secretary of the Indian Association as a parting gift, and he cherishes the book even today.

The Colombo Plan graduates have gone on to occupy important positions in their countries and have done their bit to promote a mutual understanding of cultures, thus becoming de-facto ambassadors for Australia. Past Colombo Plan scholars include Baburam Bhattarai, the current Prime Minister of Nepal; M. J Perera, the first Director General of Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station of South Asia; and Khaw Boon Wan, the current Minister for National Development in Singapore. When asked if he ever thought of migrating to Australia, Tennyson replies that he never considered this move. The Sri Lankan government had him sign a bond that was assured by a family friend, to ensure his return after completion of his 5-year study. That was not what took him back, but a sense of responsibility for nation building. He returned to a job as ‘temporary assistant engineer’ in Ceylon’s public service on a salary equivalent to $2 a month, but rose through the ranks to set up and manage two of Sri Lanka’s largest industrial projects: its first oil refinery and its first nitrogenous fertiliser plant. Later Tennyson took up senior positions in banking, consulting and industry. He has continued to live in Colombo with his wife to this day, occasionally visiting his old friends in Australia and India.

Lately, with the release of the Asian Century white paper, there has been much talk about reviving the plan with Australian students studying in Asian countries as well, and that is not a bad idea as the equation has now changed. Developing countries have a lot to offer too, and a mutually symbiotic relationship would go a long way to promote world peace and development. Tennyson says, “I have always thought of myself as lucky, rather than especially talented. I felt that good fortune when that telegram arrived. Neither of my parents had been to university, so I was the first. My father was a good man, but rather taciturn. However, on that day I could see the pride in his eyes.”

He is happy that Australia has moved away from its insular ‘White Australia’ outlook since.