By Tennyson Rodrigo
The telegram delivery boy tracked me down on his bicycle at a tennis court in Colombo in 1952, carrying the envelope with news that would change my life. I tore it open to discover I had won one of the first Colombo Plan scholarships for Asian students to study at an Australian university.
I was 22. I had grown up in a coastal village where we took the bullock cart to school. I’d never left Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. I am now 82 and am back in Sydney for a few days at my old university, the University of NSW, to celebrate the 60 years of international education.
The Colombo Plan was designed to give a new generation of Asian students the skills they needed to go home and build their own nations. I didn’t realise how significant a turning point it was for Australia, too: the White Australia Policy was still in force.
I didn’t feel any racism personally, but I did notice when I met people that they looked into my eyes strangely. It was just strangeness, not hostility. I guess they were not used to Asians. Other students had a more difficult time, especially if they went out into the mining towns.
I had fantastic lecturers in Australia. When I returned home as a chemical engineer, I was put in charge of building Ceylon’s first nitrogenous fertiliser plant, then the biggest industrial development project in the nation’s history, and its first oil refinery.
Being back in Sydney, I am so happy Australia has moved away from its insular ‘white Australia’ outlook. I am a multicultural person and in Sydney today, I see a multicultural society.