Forward Together

SGA presidents share surprising connections.

Dylan John and Nipuna Ambanpola standing side by side on the Statesboro campusFrom left to right, Dylan John and Nipuna Ambanpola hail from rival high schools in Sri Lanka.

It’s rare that two students from rival high schools in Sri Lanka would earn the same scholarships to study in the southeastern United States; rarer still they both end up presidents of Student Government Associations (SGA) at nearby universities, and even more incredible that those two universities would become one University.

Both leaders in their respective high schools, Georgia Southern students Dylan John and Nipuna Ambanpola came to America to pursue an education through the Georgia Rotary Student Program (GRSP). The GRSP provides international students the opportunity to spend one year at a university in Georgia while living with a host family. John arrived on the scholarship in 2011, and Ambanpola followed suit in 2015 after meeting with John to learn more about the program.

John began school at Georgia Southern and Ambanpola at Armstrong State University. The pride these two men felt for their universities was unparalleled, and allowed their friendly rivalry to continue in the U.S.

“The story about Nipuna and me ascending to SGA Presidents is the ultimate story of connecting to campus.”
—Dylan John

John found success early on in his academic career, quickly adapting to his course load and leadership positions in SGA, mock mediation and the Model African Union. He became SGA president of Georgia Southern University in fall 2016 and led the Vision 20/20 Initiative, bringing Georgia Southern to the forefront of leadership conversations across the state. For his many leadership and academic efforts, John received the William A. Watt Memorial Award in 2011, an honor which recognizes the top GRSP Scholar of the Year.

Ambanpola too, adapted well to life in Georgia. He founded a nonprofit, IVolunteer International, which connects volunteers with service opportunities around the world, and discussed the organization’s opportunity at TEDxSavannah. Ambanpola was awarded the Barbara M. and Donald L. Thomas Memorial Peace Award from the Rotary Club of Roswell, Georgia, in 2015, just months after arriving in the U.S. It wasn’t long before he called home and told his parents he planned to finish his education in Georgia.

Dylan John and Nipuna Ambanpola sitting together on a bench talking with each other and laughing
“I’ve fallen in love with Savannah,” he said. “The culture of acceptance and hospitality here is so wonderful. It reminds me of Sri Lanka. The natural beauty, the opportunities, the people. It’s all so great.”

Like John, Ambanpola quickly became involved with SGA when he arrived at Armstrong. John appreciated his friend’s ambition and wanted to collaborate, so much so that he desperately tried to convince Ambanpola to transfer to Georgia Southern in the fall of 2016. Despite John’s best attempts at persuasion, Ambanpola couldn’t bring himself to leave the life he’d built on the Armstrong Campus.

One night, just a few months after his appeal to Ambanpola to come to Georgia Southern, John received a call.

“Dylan, I’ve changed my mind, and I’m coming to Georgia Southern,” said Ambanpola. “But I’m not coming alone. I’m bringing the entire University with me.”

John got a great laugh from Ambanpola’s call, and though both still had great pride in their universities, they were thrilled about the prospect of working together to represent a new institution.

“We realize the opportunities this consolidation has afforded everyone,” said Ambanpola. “We’re combining the strengths of three campuses. There will never be again such an opportunity to go back to the roots of both universities and focus on bringing these amazing strengths together.”

Now the two SGA presidents are putting their leadership skills, influence and passion together to create a legacy for the new institution.

“I think the story about Nipuna and me ascending to SGA Presidents is the ultimate story of connecting to campus,” said John. “You don’t feel like you’re just another number, another person on campus.”

Both Ambanpola and John plan to use their stories to encourage other international students to take advantage of the opportunities at Georgia Southern.

“I try to go back once a year,” said Ambanpola. “We want to let students know studying abroad is possible. There is a misconception in Sri Lanka that it’s difficult for international students to get scholarships in the United States; that it’s expensive, hard to move away from home and difficult to adapt. We want to break that barrier.”

Though the two have worked hard to come together and bring unity between two student bodies, going home always brings out the old friendly competition that drove them in high school.

“Our hometown friends can’t believe this ‘Thomian’ hangs out with a ‘Royalist,’ [John and Ambanpola’s rival high schools],” said John. “Here in Georgia, it’s great to have a hometown friend nearby, but when we go back to Sri Lanka together, we have a lot of explaining to do.”

Aubrey Trevathan Hall