Senior Profile: Liyanga de Silva

Senior ProfileLiyanga de Silva is earning an English and Women's Studies dual degree and is the president of the English Undergraduate Association. This past year she was invited to attend a special workshop with artist and activitst Amos Kennedy.

Why did you decide to become an English major?

I've always loved reading and writing - I feel like that's the answer most English majors have, but that's the honest truth. At first, I thought my only career options as an English major were publishing and editing, but after spending just a semester in the English department at UMD I realized that the world was my oyster, so to speak.

It's become really clear that an English degree opens the door for you to do a huge range of things in the future - even if you don't go into a purely "English" field, you'll always be using the skills you learned here.

What clubs, campus groups, internships, outside of class projects have you been involved with? Do you have any leadership roles in these groups?

I've done a lot of stuff at UMD and within the English department, but the biggest thing is the English Undergraduate Association, where I've been President for the last two years. I also am the English representative to the ARHU Dean's Advisory Board, and the undergrad representative on the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility Committee.

I also have been an opinion columnist for the Diamondback for almost 3 years now, and a tutor in the Writing Center for almost the same amount of time. In terms of internships, I've interned at the Borgen Project and the Human Rights Campaign doing writing and communications work.

This semester, I'm a comms intern for the National Organization for Women, and my internship just got extended through the summer, so I'll be at NOW until my grad program starts in the fall. Other than that, I play the cello and I've played in the UMD Repertoire Orchestra for three years.

Amos KennedyWhy did you sign up for the Amos Kennedy Workshop? What did it entail? What did you learn/biggest takeaways?

I signed up for the Amos Kennedy Workshop because Dr. Walter recommended me for it and it seemed like a really cool opportunity to look at the intersection of art and activism. Basically Amos taught us how to use a printing press and about the history of letterpress printing and then gave us free rein to use whatever type fonts the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center had on hand to make our own prints.

I made a bunch of prints that say "Own Your Voice" on a backdrop of words related to having a voice (like sing, shout, whisper, murmur, speak, etc.). 

This was such an awesome experience and taught me a lot about the aesthetic possibility of activism. As a comms intern for the National Organization for Women, I often make original graphics for work, and Amos' unique style of layering and creating a busy background for words is something I've been playing with in my graphic design as well.

Overall, this just reinforced the importance of art in activism and social change, which is something I hope to pursue (in one form or the other) in my career.

What has been your favorite class in English and why?

It's honestly so hard to choose - I've had so many classes (and so many professors) that have deeply influenced my way of thinking and career path. The one that stands out the most (probably because it was so early in my career) is LGBT Literature (ENGL265).

This is the class that convinced me to add Women's Studies as a second major. It really showed me the activist possibility of literature, and it was the first time I'd had the chance to read literature about people who had the same identities as me. I had recently come out as bisexual and was still figuring out my place in the LGBTQ+ community, and this class was super formative in my career and in my personal life.

What is something you read during class that impacted your worldview?

One of my favorite things I've read is "Should Writers Use They Own English" by Vershawn Young. This essay is essentially about the politics of language and how we use Standard American English as a gatekeeper to higher education. The first time I read this article was in the Writing Center internship class and it really shifted how I saw language and literature. I read it again in Scholarly Writing in the Humanities with Professor Mark Forrester (a class I then TA-ed the following semester) and one more time in the UTA Seminar that you take when you TA in the English department.

I've read this essay in multiple contexts - teaching, tutoring, or being an academic in general - and each time I learn something new or understand a new complexity in the issue. It's a really important article and it also introduced me to a whole realm of Writing Center studies and pedagogical scholarship that focuses on the issue of language accessibility.

What skills (professional, creative or other) do you think you’ve gotten from the major?

So many - being able to think critically, write effectively, and communicate clearly are three big ones, but I think an English education (and ARHU more generally) has taught me a lot about being empathetic and emotionally intelligent.

The point of literature is to communicate an experience, to tell a story, and for so many marginalized people seeing ourselves in literature or fiction is powerful - the English major has taught me the importance of using your voice when you have one because so many people don't.

What is your dream job or career?

My dream job is to do communications, writing, or social media work for a social justice non-profit that works to help marginalized communities. As a bisexual South Asian woman, I don't often see myself represented the way I want, and my identities are oppressed or suppressed by our society in a number of ways.

I want to be a part of the change because I'm privileged too, in a lot of ways, and I know I can't waste the opportunities I have to make a difference. In the fall I'll be attending Brandeis in pursuit of an M.A. in Women's, Gender and Sexuality studies, and I hope to do my master's thesis on the role of art and narrative in social justice movements.

I also hope to teach higher education someday, but I want to do activist work for a while before that because I want to teach from a place of experience - the best professors I've had are those who know the practical application of what they are teaching.

What are you passionate about (or even curious about)?

I'm passionate about so many things, but mainly social justice. There are so many people in the world and in our nation who struggle against structures in our society that deem them unimportant or irrelevant and I care really deeply about easing that burden.

To you, what has been the most valuable part of the English major?

Understanding the different ways to communicate something and knowing when to use different mediums or writing styles is one of the most useful things I've learned.