When does one story end and another begin? Maybe for Anuk Dayaprema ’21 his story begins with his parents.
In the 1980s, Anuk’s father Ganege serves as a member of the Sri Lanka Navy patrolling along the Sri Lankan coast and its maritime boundaries. During the first phase of the Sri Lankan civil war, it seems, Ganege is in search of answers. As a naval officer in a country that was formerly a British colony, Ganege places great stock in his English education. He takes notes while reading old Newsweek magazines bought cheaply from street vendors and cross-references his notes later with a dictionary. He’s proud of his ability to convert opportunities into accomplishments. He even brags to fellow naval officers that no one can best him in his mastery of the language. At sea, this confidence turns everyone he meets into a friend. But the one element Ganege can’t quite grasp is how to improve the quality of life for himself or those around him in a Sri Lanka ravaged by civil war.
In 1986, Anuk’s mother Renuka is part of the Sri Lanka national basketball team contending for the FIBA Asia Women’s Championship in Hong Kong. In 1990, she excels so much in her role that she becomes team captain as they go on to compete in the FIBA tournament again, this time in Singapore. By the time she meets Ganege, she’s not just an athlete — she’s well-traveled and worldly. She’s proficient in English, too, and has a smile Ganege can’t let go. From her travels, she has also experienced a beauty Ganege has not: the peoples of all nations coming together for a common goal.
Together, the two imagine opportunities outside of the only home they’ve ever known. From this joint desire for a better future, things move fast. In 1995, Ganege applies for the Diversity Immigrant Visa program in the U.S. and wins the worldwide lottery. In August 1996, Ganege and Renuka marry, and the visa now permits both newlyweds to immigrate.
The Dayapremas immigrate over 9,000 miles to work as tellers at Bank of America in California. (To this day, they keep banking services with Bank of America, not out of superstition but loyal appreciation.) They work hard in the transition. The focus for the young family is on economic opportunity. But this is before Anuk.
Maybe Anuk’s story begins his freshman year at Duke University.
In 2017, Anuk is awarded the Malcolm F. Crawford Endowed Scholarship. Anuk knows that without this support, attending Duke would be all but impossible. The summer before he arrives, Anuk prepares by reading Richard Blanco’s “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood” and wins The Chronicle’s summer reading contest with his essay on Blanco’s memoir. Anuk’s essay is a diligent social commentary; it places a narrative lens on how individuals respond to community-imposed pressures to conform. Anuk feels that in order for any relationship between an individual and a community to be successful, it must be mutually symbiotic, for both parties to come to the equation with arms extended outwardly and open. Anuk aims to go through his next four years at Duke much in the same way.
When Anuk gets to Duke, he wastes no time. He sets up a meeting with David N. Beratan, R.J. Reynolds Professor of Chemistry, whose work Anuk greatly admires. Anuk’s curiosity leads him to question what’s visible and invisible around him, and he’s chosen Beratan specifically because Beratan sits firmly between scientific disciplines. Anuk is surprised and extremely grateful when Beratan agrees to meet him on a Friday afternoon. Beratan connects Anuk to graduate students in his lab who can share papers and discuss their findings on the theoretical research Anuk is interested in.
Application of this theoretical research is interesting to Anuk because he wants to know more about the smallest particles that make up complex systems, like proteins in a cell. He wants to know why particles in normal physical systems undergo entropy over time, moving toward chaos and disorder. And he wants to know why living systems, undergo the reverse of this, moving toward order, just to maintain life. Anuk wants to understand this research because it offers a physical and chemical explanation of life as it ebbs and flows through time.
Still in his freshman year, Anuk decides he wants to minor in religious studies. He does not come from a religious upbringing, but enjoys the communal aspect of religions, and bonding over shared food that just happens to be free. (In fact, it is a previous mentor of Anuk’s, a cancer researcher, who first sparks Anuk’s interest in theology.) He attends Shabbat services at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life nearly every Friday, weekend services at the Beth El synagogue in Durham, and services at the Episcopal Center at Duke regularly. Sometimes Anuk attends these services with close friends, and sometimes he goes alone.
On Fridays after class, Anuk goes to Heavenly Buffaloes on West Markham Avenue. He orders a different flavor of wings every visit and has now almost made it through the entire menu. There’s something about the routine that comforts him in his new home.
Maybe Anuk’s story begins with his father Ganege eyeing a dampened community newspaper on his front lawn in Los Angeles, California. This is years before Anuk is born, when his parents share an apartment in West Hollywood with another Sri Lankan couple.
The advertisement that catches Ganege’s eye is part of the U.S. military’s recruitment efforts. Ganege and his wife quickly learn about the Married Army Couples Program (MACP) in the U.S. Army: a human resources program that attempts to keep married soldiers together on future assignments. Ganege feels a higher calling has been restored because his love for the day-to-day military lifestyle has never depreciated. After serving 12 years in the Sri Lanka Navy, Ganege knows he has real-world experience the U.S. military can utilize, so he and Renuka enlist in October 1996 and enroll in MACP. For Renuka, this is her first time in the service. In February 2002, their military service earns the Dayapremas naturalization. A little over five years since joining the Army, they are Americans.
Ganege and Renuka in their early years in the U.S. Army.In an old Polaroid shared from this timeframe, Ganege and Renuka stand tall in grey physical fitness sweatsuits with black ARMY lettering. He leans into her with his right arm over her shoulder. There’s a confidence in their expressions that even the cherry blossoms in full bloom behind them can’t eclipse.
Soon, Ganege is accepted into the Special Operations Forces, a group that specializes in working with foreign troops, as a support personnel. He becomes a paratrooper as well. Of course, Ganege — who has never forsaken an opportunity — is ready. This readiness is something he has made sure to pass on to his son.
Maybe Anuk’s story begins when Malcolm F. Crawford ’52 is born.
Though they will never know each other, Anuk is unequivocally connected to Malcolm through time. Malcolm is born in 1930, over half a century before Anuk’s birth in the same city, Fayetteville, North Carolina. Malcolm attends New Hanover High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, and afterward enrolls at Duke, where he studies political science. He joins the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and works at The Chronicle, where Anuk will win the summer reading contest as an incoming freshman. Malcolm graduates and serves as an officer in the U.S. Navy, paralleling Anuk’s father’s and mother’s own time spent in the Sri Lanka and U.S. armed services. Malcolm tours Europe, years before Anuk’s family is stationed in Vicenza, Italy, before Malcolm has a successful advertising career at J. Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson in New York.
By 2002, Malcolm’s love for Duke has only grown. He establishes the Malcolm F. Crawford Endowed Scholarship Fund — which allows Anuk to come to Duke 15 years later — to help the university keep its commitment to financial aid so that no student’s financial resources are a barrier to enrollment.
For Anuk, Malcolm’s scholarship is an arm extended through time. It has pulled Anuk into the intellectual warmth of an elite academic community that he is taking full advantage of. It is a huge part of why Anuk believes in the research that he’s now doing. And it is a continuity that is always in the back of Anuk’s mind.
Almost instinctually, Anuk knows that everything he does at Duke will in turn at some point affect the future classes of Duke much in the same way that Malcolm has.
Maybe Anuk’s story begins as he gets ready to be the first person in his family to go to college.
Anuk conducting research at the National Cancer Institute at Frederick. In 2016, Anuk spends the summer of his junior year of high school doing research as a full-time paid intern in a laboratory at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at Frederick, Maryland. He goes on to spend his senior year at NCI, combining high school coursework with 15 hours a week worth of research. This is on top of having competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee three times and completing an Eagle Scout project sending $30,000 worth of books to rural Sri Lanka.
Anuk never states this as the reason for his spending his summers at NCI, but in April 2013, Ganege, a routine long-distance runner, has a cardiac arrest after completing his semi-annual Army Physical Fitness Test. He is out for 10 minutes before a defibrillator brings him back. While at the hospital, an MRI discovers cancerous tumors in Ganege’s liver. This comes only a few years after Renuka suffers a career-ending knee injury while undergoing parachute training as part of the Army’s Basic Airborne Course. The Army stations the Dayapremas at Fort Detrick so they can be closer to Water Reed National Military Medical Center for Ganege’s treatments.
As Anuk begins his college selection process, he is already familiar with Duke, having spent a summer in Kilgo Quad after his freshman year of high school for a Duke TIP summer program. He’s sold the moment he picks up a copy of the journal Neurogenesis that summer, only to discover it’s a Duke undergraduate research journal. He applies to Duke, specifically because of its commitment to undergraduates and generous financial aid packages, and a few other colleges. A few months later, the rejection letters from those other schools start rolling in. Anuk begins to fret that he might not even get into college. Then the letter from Duke arrives. In his whole life, Anuk has never seen his father cry until this moment. Ganege is hysterical as all the worries and anxieties wash away: Anuk is part of Duke’s incoming class of 2021.
Maybe Anuk’s story begins in this interview.
As Anuk says, absolutely brilliantly, that at some point all information in every textbook in the world was nontrivial. Every piece of information that is vital to the underpinnings of society — information we take for granted — had to be developed through human ingenuity, through sweat and creativity, through love and curiosity, through failure and triumph. That’s research, he says. And opportunities for new research are part of the reason he’s here at Duke.
I ask Anuk about what financial aid means to him and what he would say to future donors. He says it’s an investment in people:
“You could give a donation to research in the field of cancer. Or you could give to Duke and you’ll get a thousand researchers who will be working on the cure for cancer.”
When does one story end and another begin? Anuk’s a special young man. Maybe Anuk’s story begins right now.
When James B. Duke endowed the university in 1924, he established tradition. Since then, the university has maintained a commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based aid. This means that Duke admits students based on merit, regardless of their ability to pay, and awards financial aid based on demonstrated need.
Financial aid continues to be one of Duke’s single largest annual expenses. In 2017, the cost of supporting need-based undergraduate financial aid was $110 million. That’s because each student on financial aid receives an average of $45,000 of support annually. But without the continued support from donors like you, this level of support is unsustainable.
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