A phenomenal lady who lives to empower and inspire with every breath she takes, Dr. Buddhima Subasinghe is a trailblazer in the world of education and women’s empowerment. From starting school at the tender age of three to achieving a double degree at 19 and obtaining a Ph.D. at 24, she has truly overcome every obstacle in her way. Do you want to know how she did it?
Read on to learn more about her journey and get advice on how to achieve excellence and overcome obstacles you face in life from South Asia’s youngest Ph.D. holder!
Could you walk us through your journey in education?
Well, yes. It’s very interesting to actually go down memory lane back to when I was a 3-year-old child, and that’s when I started school. My parents decided to enroll me in school at a younger age, and that’s where it all began. As the youngest kid in the class, it was a big challenge to fight my inner and outer bullies in life. As bullying continued, especially on school days, I was the unhappiest kid in class and almost wanted to give up on everything.
The turnaround really happened at the grade two prize award ceremony. I was seated right at the back while the prize winners sat at the front, and I was thinking to myself: “Buddhima, your parents are not here; they've never been able to be here. Look at those kids; look at how happy and thrilled they are. They get appreciated and acknowledged for all their hard work. They get recognized for all their accomplishments. What are you even doing with your life?” That’s when I really wanted to go back home and discover the true potential that lies within me. If my friends and colleagues can do it, why can't I?
Here's how I discovered my true potential: I decided that it's important to accept challenges in life and started working very hard on my academics. I was not the best kid in class, but I worked really hard in the following grade, and eventually, I was paid off for the hard work. I got over 85% for all my subjects and was able to be ranked first in my class for the very first time in my life. I still remember that moment and how happy I was, realizing that this was my first step towards using education as my only weapon to stand my ground, to stand up for myself to help me fight my inner and outer bullies. Eventually, I was able to keep up and secure numerous accolades and bring my parents to the annual prize awards ceremony for the first time in my life too. That was the turning point in my life when I realized that education is the only weapon that's going to help me conquer my life.
I continued to work harder and keep up with my studies because I realized how happy it made me. With the advice of my teachers, I was also able to explore leadership and eventually moved into sports like athletics, netball, scrabble, and chess; and was eventually appointed as a Junior Prefect, a Senior Prefect, and then went on to become the Head Prefect for two years, making a record in the school. In addition, be it drama, singing, ballet, or music, I embraced it all. I started accepting each opportunity thrown at me and started making the most of it. All these great opportunities taught me numerous life experiences, which helped me become a better version of myself every day.
I was 13 when I sat for my Ordinary Level Examination, and I was 15 when I sat for my Advanced Level Examination. I joined university at 16, and life was not easy then either, especially when my friends and batchmates were about 5 or 6 years older than me. But I was molded as a leader in school, so I learned a lot in terms of teamwork and how to manage a team. Apart from academics, extracurricular activities, and leadership exposure in school allowed me to work with a team, and I think all of those experiences and exposure really helped shape me to create a supportive environment at the university. So even at 16, I was able to stand my ground and become a better leader at the university. I believe the lessons learned and the foundation laid during my school years helped me sail through the seas smoothly during my higher studies. At university too there were many difficult modules, but I was never happy to come home without clarifying doubts about a module, I always wanted to make sure I knew the inside out of the modules I studied. Sometimes I got support from lecturers, seniors, or even batch mates to make sure I was thorough with the module content, even at a younger age.
What is the best advice you can give students when picking their career?
Sometimes, in life, we think there’s only one thing we’re destined to do, and if we don't accept the opportunity to pursue that, we develop a lot of anger and hatred toward the people around us and also toward ourselves. I don't think we should do that because when one door closes, many other doors will open, provided we knock and open those doors. I think the responsibility lies within us to knock on those doors and figure out what we want to do with our lives. I always wanted to become a medical doctor; however, I have never been able to achieve that dream as my parents didn’t want me to go to an overseas medical school at 16. Did I stop there? No, I changed my pathway, changed my field, and started exploring a completely different avenue to achieve the purpose of my life. That’s when I decided to become a Ph.D. and join the academia of a university to inspire and empower thousands of youth. I am happy with the decision I made, as I am now living the purpose of my life, which is to inspire and empower.
Was becoming the youngest Ph.D. holder in South Asia always the goal, or was it a milestone achieved by coincidence?
I started lecturing at 19 and started working on my Ph.D. thereafter, as I loved working on publications and doing research. Eventually, I converted my Ph.D. from part-time to full-time, as I was advised that I could keep a record in South Asia. I started working hard day and night as a full-time researcher, traveled the world with over 10 International publications, and it was indeed a rewarding experience to look back on to see how hard work really pays off.
Finally, at the age of 24, I got my Ph.D. from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and became the youngest Ph.D. holder in South Asia. That moment was something I pictured all four years of my Ph.D. and I think that's very important. If you want to be something in life, picture that moment, see that moment of achievement, create vivid imagery of that moment, and live in the moment because then you will eventually work hard for it.
What impact does your achievement have on South Asian society and on girls?
I truly believe I made an impact on women by becoming the youngest Ph.D. holder in South Asia, primarily because I was able to become a role model to many young girls not only in Sri Lanka but also in the region. Ever since I kept the record, I have been visiting all schools and universities in Sri Lanka and also going beyond sharing my story and experiences to inspire and empower youth. I believe being a role model, especially to young girls, has been a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. I also feel it’s the duty and responsibility of an empowered lady to inspire and empower thousands out there who need her hand to take steps forward in life.
What are your thoughts on Girl Child Education, with an emphasis on the South Asian region?
I was reading a UNICEF article recently, and it said that girls are three times less likely to go to school than boys, and girls are five times less likely to own a phone than boys. Depriving girls of opportunities to learn and communicate is a major problem in the South Asian region. I see a few key gaps we need to bridge, and those are for girls to be tech-driven, insight-driven, and skill-driven.
We need to empower girls to become tech-driven because technology is advancing at lightning speed, and we have to embrace it at every level of life, whether we like it or not. I think it's important that girls are given the opportunity to embrace technology.
Being skill-driven has two important aspects. One is the technical skill gap, and the other is the essential skill gap. In terms of technical knowledge, it is very important in whatever field you are working in. You could spend years learning academics and getting A’s, but that doesn't make you technically sound or that you’re a pro in the technicalities that you have to bring to the job. The essential skill gap is the accountability that you bring to the leadership roles you take, the integrity you bring to a job, and the respect you earn. With these two skill gaps, we see that there is a gap in the education system that develops leaders who are professionals in the relevant fields of expertise. Therefore, it is crucial for us to bridge this gap, especially when it comes to women.
Insight-driven women are now becoming more prominent by starting their own businesses and leading their own companies. It’s very important to lead girls and teach them areas of entrepreneurship and leadership.
Of the 627 million children in South Asia, nearly 295 million of them are girls. It is sad to see that girls go through such a difficult time to become great leaders of society. Organizations like UNICEF, Pioneers Youth, Interact, and Rotaract, both youth-led and professional, are really supporting women’s empowerment at different levels, and people like me think it's our duty and responsibility to become role models, to lend a helping hand, and support women as much as we can.
What is the message you give to those reading this article who are inspired by your story?
Discover the true potential that lies within you because, individually, we are born with multiple talents in life; therefore, it’s important we discover who we are. Life is a question paper, and with the experiences we go through in life, we mature and become smarter as life leads us; therefore, we become problem solvers, take calculated risks in life, and always own the decisions we make for our lives and work towards achieving our dreams and goals. Be a tech-driven, insight-driven, and skill-driven person because these three aspects will certainly help you shine in life in whatever field you specialize in. I would also suggest picking a role model for your life, as a role model will definitely assist you in taking steps forward when you feel stuck in life. But don't stop there; try becoming a role model to thousands out there, and be the reason somebody else unlocks their potential and finds their purpose in their life.
Find the purpose of your life and live the purpose with every single breath you take, because your life is important. You are important. Living your purpose will always help you become a happier and more successful person.