Sagala Ratnayaka ’93 represents district in Sri Lankan Parliament
Sagala (Sagi) Ratnayaka ’93 says his favorite extracurricular activity at Lewis & Clark College was serving as a resident assistant during his sophomore year. It was a job not wholly unlike his current one as a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament.
“There’s quite a bit of similarity between the two,” says Ratnayaka, 32, one of the youngest of 225 members of Parliament in Sri Lanka, an island nation of 18 million people off the coast of India.
“Being an RA meant talking to people all the time, being available all the time,” he says.
Serving in Parliament means talking to people, too—about 300 people on the days he spends in his district office.
“Just listening to them solves most of their problems,” Ratnayaka acknowledges. “The fact that they are talking to a member of Parliament gives many a sense of achievement, even if I can’t do much to help them whilst in opposition.” (Ratnayaka’s party is currently in the minority.)
Politics is Ratnayaka’s second career. After graduating from Lewis & Clark with a degree in business administrative studies in 1993, he spent the next six years working in international banking in Sri Lanka before being persuaded to run for office by the United National Party, a right-of-center group that held power from 1977 to 1994. According to Ratnayaka, the party was looking “to absorb new, young, professional blood” during its reorganization, and he joined its crusade.
“The political system deteriorated over time and became corrupt,” Ratnayaka recently explained at the end of a commotion-filled day in Parliament (the government he opposes had temporarily averted a potentially devastating no-confidence vote).
“We need people in politics who are in it to serve the people,” he comments.
Ratnayaka’s commitment to service was evident at Lewis & Clark, says Kate Grant, former director of residence life and former director of academic advising.
Ratnayaka stood out as an extra-ordinarily caring, fun-loving and authentic person who befriended countless students, teachers, staff and even trustees, she says.
“He develops genuine connections with a lot of people,” says Grant, who, along with her husband, Jim, associate professor of economics at Lewis & Clark, keeps in touch with Ratnayaka through e-mail messages and cards.
“He’s a prince of a person,” says Portlander Ruth Richmond. Her uncle, a bilateral amputee, enjoyed rowing, and Ratnayaka would help him get his scull into the river.
Grant says she’s not surprised at Ratnayaka’s current line of work, though Ratnayaka himself says politics wasn’t in his sights when he arrived on campus in 1989.
Ratnayaka came to America to attend college because many universities in his native country had either closed or had a waiting list. He also came because his older brother had enjoyed attending school in the U.S. Ratnayaka chose Lewis & Clark for its West Coast location, small class size and international program.
Academically, Ratnayaka found Lewis & Clark to be “superb.” He supplemented his classroom work with a bevy of extracurricular activities that included crew team, student government and residence life. Ratnayaka spent his junior year in Germany as a participant in the College’s yearlong overseas program in Munich.
“At Lewis & Clark, I felt quite free to explore,” he says.
Upon graduating, Ratnayaka worked as an investment analyst for a finance company and held several posts with an international bank before entering politics at the province level in 1999. He won his seat in Parliament last October and captured the second-most votes in his district to become one of eight candidates elected to represent a constituency of about one million people.
Now in office, Ratnayaka’s days are hectic and full. Following his daylong session in Parliament, he headed back to one of his district offices. The next day, he planned to spend five hours meeting with constituents before attending two weddings and several other community events on his way to another district office two hours away.
The long workdays don’t quell his evident passion for helping to develop Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and for nudging the country toward a meritocracy that rewards hard work and achievement.
“I’m quite determined to stay in Parliament,” says Ratnayaka, “until I have achieved some of these things.”
—by Dan Sadowsky