Alumnus Patrick Mendis (M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’89), born and raised in a remote village in Sri Lanka, has lived and worked around the world. But he says his roots are in northern Minnesota.

As told to Shelly Fling
July-August 2001
Someone once said to me, "Patrick, you are a Sri Lankan–born, American-trained scholar-diplomat." I believe that summarizes what I have now become. I was taught in Sri Lanka that the best public servants are the intellectuals, the well-educated. This is actually a Confucian notion. All of my role models back home and in this country are scholars and diplomats. When I was young, that’s what I really wanted to be. And I am now, but in a different country.

Right now I am a foreign-affairs officer in the U.S. State Department, working on science and technology issues as they relate to intellectual property rights and sustainable development. And I teach M.B.A. courses on-line as an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of the University of Maryland’s University College.

When you are a public servant you hardly see your impact, but I have faith that we are making a difference, making the world a better place to live. When you are an academic and a teacher, however, you know you are making a difference one student at a time. I want to make a difference as my journey continues because, on my way, a lot of people came into my life like angels. They would show up unexpectedly and make a difference in my life and then move on.

I was born in 1960 and raised by my grandparents because I was extremely sick as a baby. I wasn’t showing any sign of recovery, so my mother, who was a Buddhist traditionalist Sinhalese, went to a scholarly Buddhist monk and looked at my horoscope. The monk told her two ways to get rid of the bad spell: have me raised outside my family or donate me to the Buddhist order, otherwise I would die before my first birthday. My father, who was Catholic, evidently didn’t like the second option, so he asked his parents—my paternal grandparents—to raise me.

With my grandparents I was no longer sick. I grew up in a rural village where we had three acres of rice, 11 water buffalo, a milking cow, about 10 pigs, 20 some chickens, and a goat. It was a Catholic home in a Buddhist society. A Catholic priest stayed at my house on weekends to say Mass, so my house was kind of a sacred place. I had a Catholic influence on the weekend, and then during the week I walked to the Buddhist public school.

During that time I was exposed to a few outside people. Two 4-H exchange students, from Iowa and New Hampshire, stayed with us for two weeks. I was 8 or 9 and remember touching their skin because it was such a novelty—I had never seen a white person. We had Peace Corps volunteers, too, in the late ’60s. They were hosted by my family because my grandparents were considered to be village leaders.

I became a Boy Scout and then joined the police cadets corps as a soldier, moving up through the ranks to sergeant. At the age of 16, I was also recruited to be a sergeant of the army cadets corps and became the best commander of the army cadets in Sri Lanka. In 1978 I saw an ad in a Sinhalese newspaper for an American Field Service (AFS) exchange program scholarship. I had dreamed of going to America, so I applied. It was a national examination and I was one of the finalists. I was 18 years old and it was the first time I had ever gone to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Looking at the double-decker buses and cars and trains—it was such an excitement. I had only ever seen the motorcycle that the Catholic priest rode to my house.

Someone on the interview board was a former best commander of the army cadets and could not believe that somebody from a rural area could become a best commander and compete for this very prestigious scholarship. He advocated that the AFS send me to America as an experiment, because I didn’t speak English.

My parents would have to sign papers allowing me to leave the country, so my grandparents finally had to tell me who my real parents were—that the people I called my uncle and aunt were my biological parents. It was three months before I was leaving the country and I was learning that I had different parents and that I was the oldest boy in the family. It was a shock because I had been told up until that time that I was left as a baby under a banyan tree, which is a humongous fig tree, and that one of my uncles found me and gave me to the people I would know as my mother and father. But when I left, my real parents signed the papers.

I went first to Stanford University for orientation where I learned how to use a fork and a spoon and all kinds of manners. From there I flew to Chicago and took a bus to Fargo.

I met my American host family in Perham, Minnesota. The AFS exchange program wanted to find a place I’d be comfortable, which they thought would be with a farm family. It was a computer match-up. But it was a shock. I came from three acres of rice and suddenly I was on 50,000 acres of alfalfa, corn, barley, oats, and wheat. This was a German family, and they ate lots of mashed potatoes and gravy and beef and I got terribly sick.

Finally, the AFS director moved me to a Scandinavian family, Bill and Dorothy Johnson’s home in town. She happened to be a country nurse, and the AFS director thought she could take care of my sickness. I became very close to the Johnsons. They have two grown daughters I call my sisters.

I went to Perham High School for the 1978–79 school year. I was kind of a star in the town because I was the first foreign-exchange student they ever had. I joined the track team and was the fastest runner in the school and they called me the "black bullet." The entire community rallied around me; they changed my life. I still go there and visit every family I know. I stay with the Johnsons—I am part of that family. I have now lived in and traveled to more than 60 countries, but my roots are in northern Minnesota.

In 1979 I took a bus trip from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., and met then-Senator Rudy Boschwitz and Walter Mondale (B.A. ’51, J.D. ’56), then the vice president. From there I flew home to Colombo. I got my undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Sri Jayawardenepura in Sri Lanka and was finishing up my senior year in 1983 when ethnic violence broke out. Through a visiting Fulbright professor from New Hampshire I got to know people in the American embassy in Colombo and became friends with the political affairs officer. He called my family and friends in Minnesota and told them that the violence had started and that Patrick must leave Sri Lanka.

The Johnsons and many other families got all the churches and the Lions Club and Rotary Club and Jaycees together and raised money. They had a pancake breakfast in the Lutheran church and some people washed cars. Twenty-three families got together for that event. They sent me a ticket and said the next available flight you must come back to Minnesota.

So in 1983 I went back to Minnesota, to my family. They told me I needed to go to graduate school, so I went to Fergus Falls Community College to brush up on my English. My student adviser suggested I do an internship at the Minnesota legislature. The local representative in the state House, Rep. Jim Evans, said, "I’ll take Patrick," so I worked for him. From there I met my mentor, the Honorable Edward Burdick, chief clerk of the state House of Representatives and the longest-serving public servant in the nation. Ed found me interesting for some reason—because I asked a lot of questions, I think.

I was planning to go to Vermont to go to graduate school that fall, but Ed thought I should stay in Minnesota. He talked to John Brandl, who was a legislator and a University professor, and Brandl talked to Harlan Cleveland, the founding dean of the Humphrey Institute, about recruiting me. I took the GRE and got a scholarship to go to the Humphrey Institute that fall. I lived in Ed’s home and he provided all my clothes and food. My family in northern Minnesota was very grateful to him.

I stayed with Ed from 1984 until 1988, when I met my wife and got married. It was a sad departure, and we cried. But he was at the wedding, as was Harlan Cleveland, who was a matchmaker of sorts.

I met Cheryl Pattison (B.A. ’92, M.A. ’97), a Scandinavian woman from Willmar, Minnesota, at the Humphrey Institute when she and I took Harlan Cleveland’s graduate seminar. It was funny because the title of the class was "Management of Peace: Tying the Global Village Together." She was a former AFS exchange student, from Minnesota to Japan, and has a rural background also. We married and now have two wonderful children. My son, Gamini, is 11, and my daughter, Samantha, is 9. Gamini was an honorary page in the Minnesota legislature’s special session this spring and went to work with "Uncle Ed" Burdick.

I was finishing up my master’s in international development and foreign affairs in late 1985 when I was given the opportunity to work with Senator Boschwitz, who was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia. I wrote background papers on the Sri Lankan conflict and Indian, South Asian, and refugee issues for his staff.

The president of Sri Lanka, who also came from a very poor family, learned from the president of my university in Sri Lanka that I was doing a lot of writing on Sri Lankan issues. He appointed me to the United Nations to represent Sri Lanka as a diplomat for the U.N. International Year of the Youth in 1985. It was a short assignment at the general assembly.

When I came back to Minnesota, I talked to my mentor Harlan Cleveland and asked what he thought I should do next. He told me I should talk to geography professor John Adams and applied economics professor Vernon Ruttan at the University. John said, "Oh, Patrick, you know that with public policy you need to have geography!" So I got my Ph.D. in geography in 1989, specializing in agriculture and applied economics.

After I got my Ph.D., I was a visiting scholar in applied economics and a lecturer in international relations at the University. I received the first Hubert H. Humphrey Leadership Award and a President’s Leadership and Service Award.

I became a U.S. citizen in 1996. I had been a permanent resident since I got married. Then my wife and children thought it was time for me to become a U.S. citizen so that we could be a real American family and I could truly serve my adopted country. It was not a hard decision for me since I always believed in the idealism of the Constitution and the democratic foundation laid by our founding fathers. When I took the oath in Minneapolis, it was a remarkable transformation in my life—a dream come true, a rural village boy becomes a naturalized citizen.

As an educator, I thought I must learn by experiencing a wide variety of things that are indeed related to everything else. Compartmentalized education doesn’t help us solve societal problems that are interdisciplinary in nature. Therefore, I ventured into other areas as opportunities guided me. I chaired the St. Paul Foundation’s Asian Pacific Endowment for Community Development, taught Russian entrepreneurs and former KGB officers about Western economics in Leningrad, and attended the World Food Summit in Rome. While there, because of my Buddhist and Christian background, I met with Vatican leaders on the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue. Currently, I am a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, a life member of the Society for International Development, a member of the American Committee on Foreign Relations, a science and diplomacy fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Socrates fellow of the Aspen Institute.

In between my teaching and research positions at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia universities, I served as special assistant to NATO ambassador Harlan Cleveland on his Asian tour to develop the Asian Division of the World Academy of Art and Science in 1995 and his tour in the Middle East to participate in the U.N. Leadership Academy in Amman, Jordan, in 1997.

On the Middle East tour, I had the honor of meeting a wide range of leaders, including the late King Hussein and Queen Noor, Yasser Arafat, and Shimon Peres. This was a unique opportunity for me to learn about and work with their complex and historical issues. I learned to appreciate the privilege we enjoy in America while staying compassionate for those who struggle every day for peace in the Middle East.

The people in some of these places could not understand how I could be assistant to this ambassador because I looked foreign; I did not look American. When they talked to me they criticized America, all the bad things about America. The funny thing was, at the end of my term there, one who had burned an American flag said, "How can I go to America?"

I joined the University of Maryland graduate faculty in 1997. I taught masters in public administration and business administration courses to senior military officers in the NATO command and received the Stanley J. Drazek Teaching Excellence Award. The University of Maryland University College was contracted by the U.S. Defense Department, and I taught in England, Germany, Spain, Turkey, and Italy and then transferred to the Pacific command and taught undergrad courses in economics and government in Japan, South Korea, and China.Then I told the university that my family was getting tired of traveling—we had traveled to over 40 countries and wanted to settle down.

Last fall, I joined the U.S. State Department’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation as a science and diplomacy fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I recently had the opportunity to work with former University president Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities. Nils asked my assistance to get Secretary of State Colin Powell to address the first convocation of more than 60 U.S. university presidents and more than 50 international presidents, rectors, and chancellors from five continents. At this global gathering of distinguished educational leaders, Secretary Powell referred to the University of Minnesota and its collaboration with America’s Promise: the Alliance for Youth. To my delight, University President Mark Yudof stood next to me and loudly said, "Minnesota is here." For my work, I was honored with the U.S. State Department’s Meritorious Honor Award.

I always want to look forward where I can be making a bigger and better contribution. The way I look at it, it’s a time for me to give back. In 1993, I endowed two scholarships for leadership and management studies at my alma mater in Sri Lanka with royalties from books and awards. Last year I endowed a third scholarship, in honor of Harlan Cleveland, at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Science and Technologies at Moraturwa University in Sri Lanka. And I mentor a wide range of students, but I especially search out African American students who need support or encouragement in their struggle.

Always we can do better. We can make a bigger impact if opportunities are given. If we look at life as a journey, we have an entire lifetime to accomplish everything we want to accomplish. I do one thing at a time, like what Buddha said, "Do one thing at a time and live in that moment. And when the next thing comes, go to the next moment and do that thing next." I do the best I can, balancing my time between my family and public service, and let other things happen as they are destined to happen. n

Shelly Fling is editor of Minnesota.