In 2015, Supun Wasana Dhananjaya Polgolla – Dan to his friends – was close to despair.
Then 18, he had followed in his brother’s footsteps, travelling from his home of Sri Lanka to Canberra, to study medical science. But that academic path was proving a poor fit for Dan, and he was failing many of his units.
“I was depressed and anxious all the time,” Dan says. “Coming to Australia felt like my one chance to succeed, and here I was, failing at it. I thought I was going to have to go home with nothing.
“At the same time, my mom had been diagnosed with dementia, back in Sri Lanka. It was a lot to deal with, and I had no idea what to do.”
Dan has come so far since those times, it almost seems like another life.
Last week, he graduated from the University of Canberra with a Bachelor of Communication and Media (Marketing Communication) degree – but to get this far, he had to kick his way up from his lowest point.
While Dan was still struggling with uncertainty over his studies, his side hustle was thriving – drawing on his lifelong love of cooking, he had gotten together with a few friends to start up Machan Berra, a pop-up kitchen serving his unique take on traditional Sri Lankan food.
“We were getting pretty popular, working at lots of food festivals,” Dan says.
Machan Berra was going from strength to strength – until the day a gas leak in their leased industrial kitchen caused an explosion.
Dan was left with horrific burns over 40 per cent of his body.
“I was in a coma for about three days, and spent almost four weeks in hospital,” he says.
Dan can’t really describe the pain he was in, though the memories of it remain. He just knew he’d never felt anything like it before.
“I just hit rock bottom – I felt like I was at a point there was no coming back from,” Dan says. “And then someone said, well, if you’ve hit rock bottom … the only place to go is up.”
Dan deferred a semester – taking the time to slowly heal physically and emotionally, and to consider his future.
When he returned to uni, he also had a chance to do an open elective subject which fell under the Bachelor of Marketing degree.
It was love at first tutorial – and Dan had new hope for the future.
“Everything changed at that point,” he says. “I made the decision to switch to a Bachelor of Marketing degree – and suddenly, I loved studying!”
As part of his degree, Dan did an internship with The Mill House – the social enterprise development consultancy located within UC.
“One of my role models is Nip Wijewickrema, the co-founder of social enterprise GG’s Flowers, and I heard about The Mill House from her,” Dan says.
He completed a number of projects across The Mill House’s marketing portfolio to help recruit new Associates, installing a visual display in the office, and producing a Voices of Mill House showreel – all of which really cemented his love for marketing.
“Marketing is about meaningful storytelling, networking and understanding the larger context,” says Dan, and he truly enjoys navigating its challenges.
As he segued from medical science to marketing, Dan was also looking to make a larger, long-held and very personal dream come true – supporting poor children in Sri Lanka to get an education.
“I have always wanted to make a difference in my country – but I didn’t know how to actually do that, until my time at The Mill House showed me,” Dan says. “Education is the basis of change, because it empowers people – any change begins from there.
“When I was small, my family fell on hard times. A convent provided the money for my brothers and I to buy our schoolbooks – it may seem a small thing, but it made a huge difference in our lives.”
Remembering the help he received as a child – and even as he looks forward to a career in social entrepreneurship – Dan is making his own difference in the lives of 12 children in Sri Lanka.
Together with his brothers and friends, he sponsors their school fees and educational necessities.
“My goal is to expand that number, until we are sponsoring at least 100 children,” he says.
To generate funds, Dan works as a cook at the University of Canberra Hospital, as well as a freelance digital designer.
His first job meant overcoming the trauma of the explosion and fire, so that he could once again step into a professional kitchen.
“The hardest part of recovering from that accident wasn’t the physical healing – it was the psychological scars I was left with,” he says.
Dan has worked to overcome them, as he has fought his way through everything else – with grace and determination, wanting to change the world for the better. And he is really looking forward to the storytelling tests and triumphs in his future.
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photos by Madeleine Wood and supplied.
The University of Canberra celebrates and congratulates the graduating class of 2021.
You have forged ahead in the face of unexpected challenges, grown in so many ways, and built strong foundations, for yourself and for others.
Many of you have taken steps into your industries of choice, to make your mark; others are building legacies on the postgraduate path.
We are so proud of you all.