The learning experiences and challenges of being a journalist in Sri Lanka

The SOJC Sri Lanka crew goes on safari in Minneriya National Park. From left to right: Andie Tenoso, Key Higdon, Jake Sandor, Delaney Engle (shooting the camera) and Judd Smith.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of two blog posts written by students who traveled to Sri Lanka in December 2016 with the UO SOJC. Stay tuned for the second post in the series, by Angelina Hess, later this month. 

Story and photos by Meerah Powell

I don’t get the chance to travel much. I went to the Philippines, where my mom is from, back when I was 14. That was the first, and last, time I had been outside of the U.S. I don’t know what compelled me to pursue the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka with the UO School of Journalism and Communication, but for some reason I felt like I had to go. To be honest, I had barely even heard of the country before inquiring about the trip. But I knew deep down it would be full of both challenges and rewards, and I wasn’t wrong on either count.

Before beginning my travel to Sri Lanka over winter break — which included multiple layovers up and down the U.S. West Coast plus a 16-hour flight to Dubai — I had the preconception that, since it was also in South Asia, Sri Lanka would be just like the Philippines. Sure, the infrastructure, biodiversity and weather was pretty comparable, but that’s where the similarities ended. Sri Lanka showed me that, on a global scale, no matter how similar two places seem in surface ways, it’s the culture and the people that ultimately define them.

Without a doubt, Sri Lanka is one of the most culturally rich places I’ve ever been to. Maybe it was the ingrained importance of religion and morals, or the traditions that have spanned throughout generations. Whatever it was, in Sri Lanka, my fellow SOJC travelers and I felt like we had a home away from home for two weeks.During our two-week spree out of the country, we experienced a lot: swimming in the Indian ocean, taking in the unbelievable landscape, eating the most delicious and spiciest food, and meeting some of the kindest people. But being a journalist in Sri Lanka, where we documented continuing recovery efforts related to the 2004 tsunami and the 25-year civil war that ended in 2009, is one of the most challenging things I’ve done so far in my journalism “career.”

First off, although Sarvodaya, the nongovernmental organization we were traveling with, was amazing and provided us with translators, the language barrier was steep. We sometimes had only four or five hours to go into a community and try to find a story, but digging deep into a subject without actually speaking the same language seemed nearly impossible. We made the connections we needed to make, but we had to push ourselves to try harder and ask the same questions in a multitude of ways while staying level-headed and resisting both frustration and heat exhaustion.

An elephant wanders through Minneriya National Park. 
An elephant wanders through Minneriya National Park.

The longest we stayed in one place was three days, in our village homestay. This was my — and I’m sure many other SOJC students’ — favorite part of the trip. Our village was Unaweruwa, located in the central region of the country.

For me, possibly the biggest challenge of this trip was feeling like we were invading people’s lives with our fancy cameras, tripods and recorders to take a quick slice of their personal experiences — especially the negative ones — before leaving. But the homestay helped me feel less like that. Actually living with the people we were writing about and getting to know them firsthand made this trip feel like more than just a portfolio piece or résumé addition. And I’m happy to say it seemed that every person I was traveling with felt the same way.

Going to Sri Lanka to do journalism was also an unforgettable learning experience. This trip was not only a challenging way to practice journalism in the real world, but also a challenging experience for myself as a person. As someone who grew up not having much (at least on an American scale), having Sri Lankan people, who have so much less, welcome me and my friends into their houses, play cricket — albeit badly — with us, feed us their food and give us their beds was so intensely humbling.

I want to thank all of the acquaintances, friends and family who helped me afford to go on this trip in the first place, as I would not have been able to do this on my own. And I want to thank Sri Lanka and all the people we met there, either with passing smiles on the streets or in long conversations. I know we all learned and gained intangible things from visiting, but I hope we gave some too.

Meerah Powell is a senior in the SOJC who plans to graduate this spring with a degree in journalism. She is digital managing editor at the Daily Emerald and an intern for the Eugene Weekly. This summer, she completed an internship with Oregon Public Broadcasting, for which she will freelance on projects in the future. She traveled to Sri Lanka with fellow SOJC students and faculty in December to document the recovery efforts after the Sri Lankan Civil War and the country’s recent natural disasters. You can view her work at and follow her on Twitter @meerahpowell and Instagram @yoyo_byebye.