As a boy growing up in Sri Lanka, Pavara Ranatunga was intrigued by airplanes. When he’d hear the whir of a jet engine from inside his house, he’d run outside to see the plane flying overhead. The way those large metal objects could fly like birds fascinated him.
Because of a life-changing decision his parents made, he has made a career out of working with flying objects, and his work now supports the International Space Station.
Ranatunga’s parents left Sri Lanka in 2004 and emigrated to the United States. They wanted to give him and his sister access to an American education and, as they hoped, the security to live a better life than they would have had if they stayed in Sri Lanka.
Today, Ranatunga is flying high like those planes that have always fascinated him. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the Penn State University Park campus and a master’s in engineering online through Penn State World Campus. He has a job in the aerospace industry and is working toward an MBA online through World Campus.
“My parents sacrificed their entire livelihood that they had back home to give my sister and me a better education,” Ranatunga said. “As any immigrant family, we struggled early on, but they made sure that my needs were met so that I could focus on going to school and being successful where I needed to be.”
A bachelor’s degree helped him take off toward his parents’ wishes
The Ranatungas settled near family in the Pittsburgh area. His parents, who had professional jobs in Sri Lanka, initially found minimum-wage jobs in the U.S. while he and his sister adjusted to their new home and worked hard in school.
In middle school, Ranatunga took a personality test to gauge majors to explore for college. His score showed an aptitude for engineering, and that’s when he discovered he could channel his fascination for planes into a college major, aerospace engineering.
He studied that major at Penn State’s University Park campus. He later landed a co-op that gave him valuable experience and graduated in 2016.
Failing, let alone settling for a back-up major that wasn’t engineering, wasn’t an option because of the sacrifice his parents made. He didn’t want to let them down.
“Now that I look back on it, that's really what drove me,” Ranatunga said. “I didn’t want to be something else. I didn’t want to go back and say, ‘I regret not being an engineer,’ because I absolutely love what I get to do today.”
A career as an aerospace engineer and a master’s degree
At his first job, Ranatunga worked on projects for engines for commercial and military aircraft with Pratt & Whitney. He loved the work, and the exposure to many subdisciplines within engineering piqued an interest in a new field: project management.
He decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in systems engineering to learn the best practices for managing engineering projects.
He enrolled in 2018 online through Penn State World Campus while working full-time. He graduated in 2020, assured that the degree and courses he’d taken had solidified his interest in project management.
Ranatunga later secured a new role as a senior engineer and project lead with Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business. In his new role, he oversees five projects that support the climate control hardware onboard the International Space Station.
“What I get to do is out of this world, quite literally,” he said.
A lifelong Penn Stater
In this new role, Ranatunga realized he lacked some of the business acumen to take on leadership positions. That’s why he enrolled in the Penn State Online MBA in 2021.
He expects to graduate in August, which means he will have his third Penn State degree.
He considers himself a lifelong Penn Stater. He’s taken advantage of the Penn State alumni community by joining the local chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association.
None of this would have been possible if his parents hadn’t uprooted their lives in Sri Lanka almost 20 years ago. He is grateful to his parents, whose sacrifices allowed him to spread his wings and fly, and he hopes he has made them proud, too.
“I owe my entire success to them,” Ranatunga said. “It is because of them that I am where I am today.”
Learn more about the master's degree in systems engineering and the online MBA available through Penn State World Campus.