Give back to the people and places that help you along the way.

Minoka Gunesekera says this sentiment sank deep in her soul growing up thanks to her parents, immigrants from Sri Lanka who moved to Blacksburg in 1984 so her mother could pursue a world-class graduate education in biochemistry at Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

“They were passionate about the idea,” said Gunesekera ’13, now an admissions officer for Duke Divinity School. “After their deaths, it was a no-brainer to give back to the place that helped our family so much and always made us feel welcome.”

That place? Cranwell International Center.                                             

“Cranwell made us feel like we were home and made me proud to be a first-generation American,” she said. “It helped us plant roots in a town we dearly loved.”

Gunesekera is giving back through an endowment created by a gift of real estate to a Virginia Tech donor-advised fund that will support Cranwell and extend her parents’ legacy. The Bhadra and Chrys Gunesekera Memorial Excellence Fund will enable Cranwell to enhance and expand current programs, such as the International Street Fair and International Café Hours, develop new programs, and build momentum for the future.

“It is both moving and motivating to hear about the impact on Minoka’s family,” said David Clubb, Cranwell’s director. “We plan to use her gift to facilitate more meaningful moments of intercultural learning like those she experienced.”

Gunesekera’s parents were among those cheering on Cranwell when it opened in 1986. The community was there for them when she was born, as her mother earned her doctorate, and in the decades after as she grew up and her parents established careers. Her mother, Bhadra, worked as a research scientist in plant pathology and weed science for the university. Her father, Chrys, worked in Blacksburg’s hospitality industry.

Her parents became American citizens in 2000.

“I vividly remember watching movies on the patio of the brick building at 417 Clay Street that housed Cranwell and mingling with people from around the world,” said Gunesekera. “We lived close, so I remember hearing Ring Premiere fireworks and football game announcers. All of it made me feel like Virginia Tech was home.”

Cranwell’s current location is in Harper Hall. The Clay Street building houses administrative offices for Student Affairs.

Even more vivid for Gunesekera: feeling accepted and included.

“I could wear traditional Sri Lankan clothing without getting weird looks,” she said. “I knew that everyone there could be who they were. This was true for me as a child and as a college student.”

Minoka Gunesekera

Minoka Gunesekera

Gunesekera initially went elsewhere for college to explore life outside of Blacksburg.

“It just didn’t work, though,” she said. “I kept thinking: this can’t be all college has to offer. With some guidance, I went back to where I had been all along.”

She started her second year as a transfer student majoring in urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. There were challenges despite the familiarity.

“My advice for transfer students is be persistent in finding your place and community,” she said. “It will happen. Give yourself time to adjust. And don’t ever feel bad about going where you need to go.”

She turned to Cranwell for community and made the most of her student experience through service and leadership roles, mentoring, exploring her faith, and Homecoming Court. She also received one of the first Aspire! Awards from Student Affairs.

“It was for Self-Understanding and Integrity, and it’s still the award I’m most proud of receiving,” she said. “I was able to embrace my very different identities: leader, first-generation American who wanted to explore my Sri Lankan heritage, country music lover, Southerner, Christian. The award speaks to the core of who I am.”

At her core is also someone who embraces Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). Gunesekera says the gift allows her to do that. 

“I caught the ‘giving bug’ and hope to inspire others,” she said. “The process was easier than I expected, and someone walked me through it. There was this journey of thinking about what it means to leave a legacy and serve others.”

She was elated to learn she could choose where to give at Virginia Tech — and that the donor-advised fund would allow her to make gifts to other organizations with the same gift of real estate.

“I knew I wanted to give to Cranwell,” she said. “But I also see it as a gift to the larger university, the community, and even the world. It’s important to get to know those who are different, share our knowledge, and find common ground.” 

 

Written by Tammy Tripp. Photos by Christina Franusich.