Ishara Fernando went on her exchange 11 years ago. Looking back, what a big deal it was to live with strangers, in a whole other family dynamic and culture. "I was met with a single long-stemmed rose", Ishara recalls when she was greeted at Hamburg Airport (see photo on the left). After finishing her studies in Melbourne and entering a graduate program at one of the big 4 banks, Ishara and her partner took a career break, traveled Europe and lived in Germany before returning to Melbourne (see photo on the right).
An Interview with Ishara
Year of exchange: 2009/2010
Group Leader: Valerie Rozen
School: Mac.Robertson Girls' High School
Sponsor: Mercedes Benz
Town / city of exchange in Germany: Gettorf (near Kiel)
Memories from your exchange:
Arriving at Hamburg airport was exhilarating - I couldn't wait to meet the German family I'd been Skyping with. We'd been matched just on a questionnaire. Looking back, what a big deal it was to live with strangers, in a whole other family dynamic and culture. I was met with a single long-stemmed rose which was sweet - we got in the lift to go to the carpark and my four Germans towered a foot taller than me, there I was, little Australian-Sri Lankan with a backpack taller than me and my whole new family so tall! In all my photos I'm on my tippy toes! (see picture left with my host sister Wiebke Holz).
They'd kindly packed snacks in the car for me and when we got to their place, we had 'Kaffee und Kuchen' and they thought my German was amazing because I was smiling and nodding at everything. Little did they know, I was exhausted and struggling to comprehend their fast German. 10.5 years later and I still speak to all four family members - times have changed since Skype calls, long emails and handwritten letters - now we Instagram message, Whatsapp and video call on Messenger roughly every couple of months. My host mum promised me years ago that the only reason she'd sit on a plane for 24 hours to cross the world was for my wedding. I recently called them and invited the family to my wedding - I can't wait for them to all come to Melbourne and to show them the generous hospitality they've shown me every time I've stayed with them in Gettorf!
Studies on return from exchange:
I finished high school and did very well with German language for Year 12 thanks to my time on exchange. My host family were so disciplined with explaining everything to me in German that when I returned in 2013, I was so surprised my host parents could speak English! German was the only subject I knew I wanted to study at Uni so I chose a broad double degree at Monash University - Bachelor of Commerce/ Bachelor of Arts. I continued German units for two years but found a passion for Asia during university and diverted my attention to Asian studies, volunteer work in Cambodia and in Commerce, business management.
Career path since then:
I worked at the social enterprise Thankyou for six months after graduating university, where I learnt more about the world - how people in developing countries in Asia and Africa don't have access to water, toilets, food. I then did a graduate program at a big four bank NAB to test out corporate life. I left after 2.5 years to take a career break; my partner and I followed our wanderlust to jetset to Germany to live there for a year. I continued my German language studies, trying to relearn after about 5 years of only sending terrible grammatically incorrect messages to my host family. We lived in Berlin for four months, spent Christmas with my host family in 2018 and travelled throughout Europe for four months before returning home to Melbourne in 2019.
What are you doing now?
Now we live in Melbourne, are raising our new spoodle puppy Lucy, reminiscing about our travels through Europe, planning our wedding, dreaming of my host family being here in Melbourne with my family and we are working full-time. I am working at a small business Doing Good Rewards dreaming of helping charities by providing them millions of dollars so they can focus on helping people in need rather than fundraising. I believe we rise by lifting others. I feel incredibly privileged to have been brought up in Australia, not war-torn Sri Lanka. I'm an ambassador for a Sri Lankan charity, Foundation of Goodness with board members Murali, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena and Russel Arnold.
How did the SAGSE exchange experience influence your life's journey?
The generosity my host family has shown me and the strong bond we have developed and maintained strengthens my resolve to make more strong connections around the world and to show kindness and generosity. Seeing the world at 17 years old helped me develop a global mindset and has since made me feel like the world is connected in a way that makes me dream of helping communities less fortunate than us.