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UW-Baraboo/Sauk County professor earns UW System Regents Award

June 6, 2018

University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County mathematics professor Kirthi Premadasa didn’t always show the aptitude for analyzing differential equations that he does today.

As a teenager growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he was more interested in playing sports than evaluating logarithms. Premadasa said he failed a seventh-grade math exam in spectacular fashion with a score of 27 out of 100, which prompted his mother to hire a private tutor.

But his 13-year-old self wanted no part of it.

“The first day the tutor came to teach me, I was playing cricket with my friends in the backyard,” Premadasa said. “I just wanted to play cricket like any American kid would want to play for the Yankees.”

Much to the chagrin of his mother, Premadasa told the tutor he was going to play ball instead of doing his homework. Premadasa said his mother was livid when she found out, and made sure he would give the instructor his undivided attention the next time he came for a lesson.

“On Saturday he came, and I was like a cow to slaughter,” Premadasa said. “I sat with him, and he gave me a lesson in logarithms.”

The tutor demonstrated a problem and gave Premadasa a similar one to solve. Premadasa finished it with ease — as he did the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

“After that, I got an A on every math exam I took up to my Ph.D.,” Premadasa said. “The lesson I tell students is it only takes an hour for you to turn from someone who hates mathematics to an A student.”

Positive attitude

That change in attitude and the confidence that came with it is something Premadasa works tirelessly to instill in his students. It’s one of several reasons he has been selected as a recipient of this year’s University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents Teaching Excellence Award.

The $5,000 awards are given each year to two faculty or academic staff members at UW System institutions in recognition of outstanding career achievement in teaching. The Regents Teaching Excellence Awards are administered by the systemwide Office for Academic and Student Affairs.

Premadasa began his teaching career in Sri Lanka and worked there for nearly a decade before traveling with his family to the United States. He said he made the decision to pursue an American work visa in order to find more opportunities for his daughter, who has special needs.

Premadasa secured a six-month teaching contract in 2007 at UW-Whitewater, but there was a catch. He had to find a permanent position before the work agreement expired.

“I’m very grateful to them because they are the ones who gave me the first break in my career here,” he said. “But it was a very scary experience because after six months I had to go back.”

After experiences issues renewing his visa, Premadasa thought he would have to bring his family back to Sri Lanka, but he said UW-Whitewater officials fought hard to secure a six-month extension for his teaching contract.

During that time, he landed a job at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. He taught there until 2012, when he accepted a position at UW-Baraboo, where he teaches mathematics today.

“I applied for a visa from Sri Lanka in 2007 and came for a six-month stay,” he said. “What are the chances? You look at this whole story, it’s pretty incredible.”

Accolades

Premadasa has earned several prestigious awards while at UW-Baraboo. They highlight his research that brought innovative teaching methods to the classroom. This summer, he’s taking his expertise back to Sri Lanka.

Premadasa is serving as a United States Fulbright specialist at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura near the capital city of Colombo in June. His work overseas will focus on fostering classroom collaboration and connecting students with information technology and finance industry leaders before they graduate.

Premadasa said his experiences teaching in Sri Lanka and the UW System have made him the educator he is today. He said he focuses on giving students informed, honest advice, conducting extensive research on new teaching methods and fostering the confidence to succeed in each of his pupils.

“In the East, we have this thing that teachers should be regarded as second parents,” he said. “When you walk into a classroom, you see these kids, and you give them your best because they’re like your children.”

Premadasa said he hopes his students will carry on his legacy.

“One day when I’m old, and I lose my mind or something, and I won’t understand the number one or number two — but still those kids will be around,” he said. “Very few people can reach immortality, but teachers can.”

While he’s earning many accolades as an educator, Premadasa said he sometimes still thinks about rekindling his illustrious cricket career.

“I had all the records on my street, but beyond my street I don’t think I had a lot of potential,” he said with a laugh. “I still have this dream that one of these summers I’ll go out to a place in Madison and start playing cricket again. Some dreams come true, and some don’t.”