One of University of Toronto Scarborough campus’ earliest Tamil alumni has donated the prestigious institution a historic gift of $2 million to support Tamil studies. The donation from Ravi Gukathasan (U of T PhD, 1986; UTSC BSc, 1982), who is CEO of Digital Specialty Chemicals Ltd. in Scarborough, is the largest single cash gift from an alumnus in UTSC’s 51- year history.
It will fund an annual post-doctoral fellowship in Tamil studies as well as scholarships, event programming and digital archiving. Gukathasan has roots in Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking north and studied at S. Thomas’ College, Bandarawela, residing at the school’s boarding school. He firmly believes that pure Tamil is spoken and held in high regard in the Northern Province.
Gukathasan believes the region is the “guardian” of the Dravidian language. He migrated with his family to the U.K. in 1974. They later emigrated to Canada, settling in northern Scarborough, and in 1978 Gukathasan entered what was then known as Scarborough College, founded just 13 years earlier.
Seed planted 10 years ago
Gukathasan was just one of three Sri Lankans at Scarborough College at the time, two Tamil-speaking, and one Sinhalese in 1978.
After obtaining his PhD in chemistry at U of T, Gukathasan founded Digital Specialty Chemicals, a highly successful enterprise located on Coronation Drive in southeastern Scarborough, where he has also created a small park and decorated the lobby with Indigenous art. Gukathasan was impressed by an initiative led by young undergraduates to start a Tamil Studies initiative at the university in 2006.
“I was so impressed and I gave them $10,000 on the spot. That was 10 years ago,” he said in an interview with lankareporter.com. “That is all I could afford to do. Those kids planted a seed in my heart and in my soul, which slowly but surely grew. I owe to those kids, honestly, for inviting me 10 years ago.”
Jaffna to Scarborough
After years of unresolved political issues, Gukathasan says many of the brightest academic stars in Northern Sri Lanka have left or want to leave the country.
“What is going to happen to the language in Sri Lanka? So why don’t we set up a centre of excellence at UTSC, so at least here, the language could thrive.” “I want UTSC to be a star when it comes to Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, its culture, its language, its perspective in the world,” says Gukathasan.
“We have the biggest Tamil diaspora in the world in Scarborough. They need to be proud.” He also sees his gift as a leadership example for other members of the Tamil community to follow. “I think $2 million is a very good nucleus to begin with,” he says.
The 10-year commitment will fund the $1.25 million Ethan and Leah Schweitzer Gukathasan Fellowship, named for Gukathasan’s two teenage children, as well as provide $500,000 for a programming fund, $150,000 for a digital fund, and $100,000 for scholarships, all in the children’s names as well. “The gift will add hugely to our ability to expose our campus to what’s going on in Tamil worlds,” says Bhavani Raman, associate professor in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies and chair of the tri-campus Tamil Worlds Initiative programming committee.
“We will be able to support young and upcoming scholars from all over the world with the post-doctoral fellowship, as well as other visitors.”
Others will follow
She notes that a previous substantial gift from Gukathasan has already allowed UTSC to sponsor a Tamil Studies Conference, hold regular public programming on Tamil subjects and work with the UTSC Library to enhance its Tamil language collection.
She expects to be able to greatly expand such initiatives, including the digitization of Sri Lankan Tamil works for global access.
“Beyond U of T, the gift will be a massive resource for Tamil studies, because there are very few post-doctoral fellowships dedicated to this field,” she says.
“My guess is we’ll get many applicants from outside Canada.” Gukathasan is extremely proud of his two children with fellow chemist and alumna Caroline Schweitzer (U of T PhD, 1993; U of T MSc., 1989; UTSC BSc, 1987) whose names are on the gift. Ethan, 18, recently entered the U of T to study chemical engineering, while Leah, 17 and in Grade 12, wants to study evolutionary anthropology at U of T. Gukathasan sees his gift as just the start.
“I’m hoping others will follow suit with more money,” he says. “I hope we can keep building this program and make it very, very well-funded and well-rounded.”