Educator of the Month, February 2023: Sewwandi Abeywardana

Michigan State University is fortunate to have passionate educators who are committed to enhancing the experience of their students and who help to provide the best education possible.

The Graduate School is featuring some of these educators – graduate and postdoc educators - every month to share their unique stories and perspectives on what it means to be a dedicated educator, how they’ve overcome educational challenges, and the ways they have grown through their experiences.

For February 2023, we are featuring Sewwandi Abeywardana, a doctoral candidate in Chemistry with a focus on chemistry education research. Sewwandi overcame teaching and (as a Sri Lankan national) linguistic challenges through patience, openness, and a commitment to self-care. She shares her experiences below.

A headshot of Sewwandi Abeywardana standing outside in front of a river and thicket of trees.What does it mean to be an educator at a university?

Being an educator at a university, particularly as someone who is studying chemistry education, has been a transformative experience for me. At MSU, my graduate advisor, Dr. Melanie Cooper, and groupmates are providing me a supportive and intellectually stimulating environment to grow as a researcher and an educator.

As a graduate teaching assistant for organic chemistry, I get to work with undergraduate students who are highly motivated and eager to learn. The questions students ask and challenges they face while learning chemistry continue to motivate me to work in the field of chemistry education and contribute to the efforts of improving chemistry teaching and learning.

As is well documented in literature, college level introductory chemistry courses remain a barrier for students who want to pursue STEM careers. I get to help students to become successful in their chemistry courses and consequently help them reach their STEM career goals. I am proud to be part of a chemistry education research group that is working towards addressing barriers in learning college level chemistry using evidence-based approaches.

Additionally, being an educator at MSU also provided me an opportunity to be part of the Graduate Teaching Assistant Advisory Board. With the leadership of Dr. Stefanie Baier, I contribute to the workshops and trainings that are aimed to provide resources and support for educators at MSU. This has been a wonderful community building and professional development experience that enriches my experiences an educator.

Lastly, as an educator MSU, I have opportunities to engage with researchers and educators with various expertise via classes, seminar talks, conferences, workshops, meetings etc. All these experiences continue to inspire me to be a better educator and a researcher.

What are some challenges you have experienced and how have you grown from these?

As a foreign national whose first language is not English, I encountered challenging moments when teaching. Sometimes, I needed time to turn my thoughts into words while explaining complex chemistry ideas to students. However, I soon learned that I need to be open about these challenges. For example, I let my students know that sometimes I may need a time find words to explain things. I also let them know they can ask me for clarification if anything that I say did not make sense to them. After gaining years of teaching experiences, I now have fewer moments as such, but I still find myself learning new words, phrases, idioms every day!

Another challenge that I experience, and I continue to work on is managing my time and energy. As a graduate student, teaching assistant, and a researcher, I have many responsibilities and due dates to meet. As a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a friend, I want to prioritize spending quality time and providing support for my loved ones.

Over the years, I have identified strategies that work best for me to manage my workload. For example, every Friday afternoon I plan my next week in detail hour by hour. I am conscious about what time of the day I can be most productive and what I need to do to rest and recharge. I include time to do activities as family, time to connect with a friend and prepare healthy meals on a weekly basis. Of course, things do not go as perfectly as I envision but planning my week in detail helps me to take control of how I spend my time.

What value do you see in Teaching Professional Development?

I believe professional development in teaching is crucial to educators. Our student body continues to become diverse, and how things have traditionally been done continues to become less and less effective as the world changes. So, learning about effective instructional strategies, equitable assessments, curricula design, educational technology etc. is imperative for educators. However, I believe departments and units also need to change their work culture in a way that recognizes and encourages graduate students and educators who are eager to participate in such teaching professional development activities.

What is one piece of advice you would give other graduate educators?

Take care of yourself…We all know that mental and physical well-being should be a high priority for all of us. However, our workload, responsibilities and personal life can make us feel like we don’t have time to take care of our well-being. No one knows your body and mind better than you do, so listen to the signals they give you. And most importantly, treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Rest when you need, eat nutritious food and a build a circle of loved one who genuinely wants to support you.

A quote that I strongly agree with is “if you don’t take time to take care of your wellness, you will be forced to take care of your illnesses.” So, I urge you to take time to rest, eat healthy and connect with your friends and family.

What do you enjoy in your free time?

As many graduate students can relate, I do not have a lot of free time. Whenever I do, I enjoy learning about and preparing nutritious plant-based meals and snacks. I also enjoy listening to Sri Lankan music in my free time. And I love going on road trips, exploring local coffee shops, restaurants, museums, and science centers with my family.