Penn has recognized Keshara Senanayake L’23 with a Graduate Student Leadership Award for his work crafting a long-term solution to unpaid and underpaid internships.
As a first-generation law student, Keshara Senanayake L’23 credits alumni support as the reason he could attend the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Now, he is being recognized for his work to pay it forward to the larger University of Pennsylvania community.
“I’m a first-generation professional. The only reason I can go to law school is because I’ve been given the opportunity to do so,” Senanayake said. “I want to reduce as many barriers of entry for students as I can. It’s an obligation that we all have; to me, that’s the purpose of being in law school.”
At this year’s Graduate Student Leadership Awards Ceremony, the University recognized Senanayake with the “President & Provost’s Honor for Developing New Initiatives in Graduate & Professional Student Life” for his work, which includes creating a fund to support graduate students taking on unpaid or underpaid internships, thereby removing a crucial barrier that has historically prevented students from pursuing potentially transformative career building opportunities.
A Changemaking Mindset
Prior to law school, Senanayake had participated in student government as an undergraduate, but he wasn’t sure if his rigorous schedule would allow him to continue to do so as a law student. Nonetheless, when he arrived at Penn Carey Law, he was struck by the strong sense of community and how willing people were to help one another. Driven to do his part, he joined the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA).
“When I wrote my ‘Why Penn’ essay, a big part was that I wanted to get the skillset to make not only the world around me better, but my community, too,” Senanayake said. “My emphasis is on community, because changing your community really impacts the people around you.”
Throughout his law school career, Senanayake was instrumental in creating change in several areas. He: led efforts to rename the Pan Asian Graduate Student Association (PAGSA) to be more inclusive; worked with a coalition advocating for increasing the accessibility of free menstrual products in campus bathrooms; collaborated with Biddle Law Library to create a Lending Library that makes high-priced textbooks accessible to students; and worked alongside Dean of Students Felicia Lin L’08 to reduce the cost of printing and coffee for law students.
Senanayake’s Graduate Student Leadership Award honors, among other initiatives, his work penning a GAPSA resolution that creates a permanent fund to financially support graduate students working unpaid or underpaid internships.
As a GAPSA representative, Senanayake was aware that unpaid and underpaid student internships were a huge problem. Only some schools have the resources to support students in taking advantage of these opportunities that have the potential to launch and transform careers.
One night, Senanayake sent an email to the University’s Career Services Office with an idea to solve the problem. He proposed a GAPSA resolution that transferred an amount, later finalized at $700,000, from GAPSA’s carryover reserve balance to Career Services for the purpose of financially supporting graduate Penn students taking on unpaid or underpaid internships. The resolution would also create an endowment, making the fund permanent.
To his delight, Career Services said that, yes, this would be an excellent first step in solving the problem.
“The cool thing about this resolution is that, after I graduate, this fund will be here in perpetuity, as a structural solution,” Senanayake said.
Senanayake emphasized that, though the instatement of the fund is an essential start and will have immediate impact this summer, when the first student internships are funded, it is only the first step. For the fund to continue to function, alumni and donor support is crucial.
“One major hope is to really encourage alumni to help support programs like this, both in and outside the Law School,” Senanayake said. “Ultimately the GAPSA funds do not meet the full need, but my hope is to get the momentum going. If more alumni can contribute to that endowment funding line, more students can who get great internships can actually go.”
Both in the context of the award-winning resolution and in his advocacy efforts at the University generally, Senanayake underscored the collaborative efforts that made change possible. The team at the University’s Career Services played a pivotal role in actualizing the unpaid and underpaid internship funding resolution. Moreover, his colleagues at the Law School and in GAPSA all worked hard to contribute to various stages of each advocacy project Senanayake participated in, including the resolution.
“This resolution was fundamentally a group effort,” Senanayake said. “While I had the idea and wrote the resolution, it really is the community around me that helped make it happen. I’m thankful for the recognition, but it’s not just mine; it’s a team effort in so many dimensions.”
In particular, Senanayake credited taking courses with and serving as a teaching assistant for Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership and Associate Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis with helping him to develop as an advocate. Through de Silva de Alwis’s classes, Senanayake met leaders from around the world and grew his dedication and passion for helping communities where he could.
“The common narrative of [de Silva de Alwis’s] classes is that she exposes us to the world,” Senanayake said. “She has these thought leaders and Titans of industry come speak to us, and we’re given the forum to engage back with them. That kind of space fundamentally sparks innovation in advocacy.”
Significantly, de Silva de Alwis’s classes equipped Senanayake with a framework for approaching, analyzing, and solving societal problems in a sustained way. To him, a major takeaway has been that a “general ask” is much less effective than creating an action plan that uses available resources to address a problem directly.
Continued Community Building
After graduation, Senanayake is planning to begin his career at Cooley LLP, in New York. He noted that he is eager for what comes next, both for him and for the advocacy projects he led at Penn Carey Law.
He is especially hopeful to see the unpaid and underpaid internship fund grow.
“I’ve had an amazing three years of Law School, and it set me up very well for the rest of my life. My hope is that, whatever comes next, I can support this Law School in any way I can, because it’s what we all have to do as law students, especially law students at this University, which has helped shape and mold us in so many meaningful ways,” Senanayake said. “I’m looking forward to my summer, looking forward to my associate class, and looking forward to being a Penn Carey Law alum.”