Student Interns: Their Lights Shine Brightly

Published originally in the Spring 2009 issue of Berea College Magazine

by Megan Smith, ’11

Holding a torch to unmask the early morning fog, Treshani Perera, ’10, hiked up a hill where 16 boys awaited her. In Sri Lanka it is not normal for girls to be surrounded by so many boys. “Don’t give them your address!” her parents had warned. “These boys were once terrorists.” They were Tamils. She was a Sinhalese girl. Could she break through the prejudices from a long standing ethnic war? Treshani did not even speak their language.

The psychology and music major spent her short term internship helping to rehabilitate and assimilate these child soldiers in her homeland. Once called Paradise Island, for nearly 30 years Sri Lanka has been plagued by an ethnic war between the Tamils and Sinhalese. Some of the children Treshani worked with at the Ambepussa Rehabilitation Center for Child Soldiers had been abducted from their families, taken into the jungle and trained to kill. The Unite Nations has identified the recruitment of child soldiers as a human rights issue. Sri Lanka outlawed child recruitment in 2002, but children continue to be recruited by an alleged terrorist organization, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. the Sri Lankan government began its rehabilitation efforts in 2007.

Treshani wanted to work with child soldiers who suffered from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders in order to understand how the experience affected them. She was surprised to find that the rehabilitation center was not a psychiatric facility. They had no residential psychiatrists—only one pediatrician for the community.

“It shocked me to know that there was no person directly responsible for the mental health and welfare of these children,” Treshani says. The boys she worked with had been recruited in pre-adolescence. Now, she hoped to give these older teens a chance to reclaim their childhood. With Treshani they made music with percussion instruments, created crafts out of recycled and natural materials and collaborated on poster murals.

Trying to get these teens to open up and participate was challenging. Becase they had never been in such close proximity to a Sinhalese person, Treshani struggled to erase their prejudices. Many of them thought she was there out of pity. Over the three weeks, a level of intimacy developed and the boys revealed their stories. Teary-eyed, Treshani says, “I couldn’t believe these boys were known as terrorists.” Treshani grew so close to her students that it was harder for her to leave them than it was to leave her own family. Through spending time with her, the boys were able to see Sinhalese people in a positive light. Even though she expected the war to end soon, Treshani says it will take time for people to heal. It will take time to become one country, rather than two ethnicities.

Treshani is confident that she will return to her country. “This whole experience opened my eyes to this idea of social responsibility, and it really made me see that I need to give back to my community,” says Treshani. “If you can go back, go back. Your country needs you.”

The Berea College Internship Office was established in 1980 to encourage students to think more seriously about their career choices and goals. Internships can help students make contacts that help them further their careers. Students pursuing internships are responsible for choosing where they will intern and submitting a proposal to the Internship Office. Students need two sponsors, at least one within their major. They also propose academic content to their internship and must plan to write a paper or make a presentation on their learning experience.

Treshani was one of 25 Berea students from 11 different majors who held January short-term internships. Four students interned abroad while others interned inside the U.S., most of them in the state of Kentucky. Tiffany Halfacre, ’10, originally of Standon, Kentucky, worked at Davis and Powell funeral home in the Berea community.

During the first day of her internship, Tiffany was left alone with two bodies in the morgue behind double-locked doors. She looked at the woman lying on the stainless steel prep table and wondered what type of person she must have been. In that moment a feeling of immense calm came to her—and a sense of having a higher calling came to help grieving friends and family say goodbye.

A biology major, Tiffany plans to become an embalmer and funeral director. Her unusual career choice occurred after she was struck by lightning at age 15. After waking up from a seizure, Tiffany told her mother she was going to work with dead people.

Before she was struck by lightning, Tiffany intended to be a defense attorney. She was chatting with a friend on her back porch when a bolt that she remembers as a blue flash struck her. Upon her hospital release, Tiffany began having seizures. Tiffany called on her faith to interpret the near-death experience. Tiffany said “It was God’s sign to go another direction with my life.”

During her internship, Tiffany helped Jim Davis and Greg Powell with visitations, funerals and office work. Some of her daily tasks included setting up flowers, designing memory books, helping to clothe the deceased and observing how to embalm and prepare the body for viewing. She assisted in the funerals of six community members.

Her most challenging moment came when she was left alone with two children after the loss of their 35-year-old family member. The two children wondered why he had died. To them, why was more important than how. Tiffany told them, “Sometimes things happen and you don’t know why.” When the children asked if she had seen the body, Tiffany assumed they also wanted to see him. to protect them from seeing the body in disarray, she told them that she had not.

Soon after, the children went outside to play, but Tiffany struggled the rest of the evening. She cried for two hours because she felt guilty about her lie. She had wanted to help them but she didn’t know how. It took Tiffany a while to realize that later, wen the time is right, someone will explain it so they can understand it and that her lie shielded them from more hurt.

“My job is not to show emotion, but it’s not not to feel it,” said Tiffany. She has been told, “The day you stop feeling sympathy is the day you should get out of the business.”

Tiffany says there is nothing else in the world she would rather be doing. “There’s something about preparing someone for a funeral. It’s like the final act of love for a person.”

Categories: News, People, Programs and Initiatives
Tags: internships, internships and career development, service, Students

Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor and service. The College only admits academically promising students with limited financial resources—primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia—but welcomes students from 41 states and 76 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition. Berea is one of nine federally recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly to earn money for books, housing and meals. The College’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” speaks to its inclusive Christian character.