From spending her very early childhood on the island nation of Sri Lanka to moving at the tender age of 8 to the suburbs of New Jersey, Chithma Gunawardana has indeed experienced dramatic change in her life. She has also realized significant achievement: Gunawardana taught herself how to read and write English and is now a college sophomore.

“I was focused on one goal and that was to get a better education,” said Gunawardana of her proudest accomplishment. “It’s been 11 years since we came to the United States of America, and with hard work I achieved everything I once dreamed [of].”

Helping her to realize this objective — and providing her with a taste of college life and learning as a youth — was the Women in Engineering and Technology Initiatives FEMME Program, coordinated by NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs. FEMME encourages post-fourth-grade through post-ninth-grade girls to explore science and technology fields such as environmental engineering and computer coding. Its intensive summer component includes classroom discussions, laboratory experiments, projects and field trips.

“I noticed that it was a program for all girls, which was really shocking to me at the time,” recalled Gunawardana, who was told about FEMME by her elementary school teacher. “I was really fascinated by the idea of working together with different girls [who were also interested in learning new things].”

She subsequently spent her summers between fifth and 10th grades in the program, building rocket ships and steeping herself in STEM. “My favorite part was going on field trips. It was not only fun, but it was also educational because the field trips we went on related to something we were learning about on campus…[and we] got to experience it in real life.”

Two of the FEMME programs – (Top) FEMME7 students test acids and bases. (Bottom) FEMME4 participants catch samples of ocean lift at Sandy Hook.

Overcoming Challenges

Gunawardana and her family moved to the U.S. in 2007 after her mother won a green card through the Diversity Visa lottery, settling first in Union City and then in Bayonne in New Jersey. In Sri Lanka, her mother was a teacher and her father was in the army. Following their migration to America, they got jobs cleaning and working as a cashier, respectively.

“In order for me and my siblings to get a better education, my parents gave up their careers,” Gunawardana said. “Coming to the States was hard. We didn’t know English and my mom was pregnant with my sister… Then after my sister was born, me and my brother took care of her while my parents worked.

“Going to school wasn’t easy either for me. I got bullied. I always came home crying wanting to go back to my country, but seeing my parents struggle for me and my siblings only motivated me to do better,” she added.

And persevere she did, graduating from Bayonne High School and currently studying accounting and marketing at Rutgers University-Newark. Her brother just completed NJIT’s computer engineering bachelor’s program. They are first-generation college students.

Gunawardana credits FEMME with teaching her how to be organized and avoid procrastination, both important skills for succeeding in higher education. “This program helped me a lot before I came to college,” she noted. “It actually showed me what a college campus would be like since I was 11 years old. Not many 11-year-olds could really say that they got to experience life on a college campus, but because of the NJIT pre-college program, I can.”