It all started with last year’s Google Summer of Code where I, along with over 1100 others, took part in the program designed to pair university students with open source organizations for a three month project writing code over the summer. I was accepted by OpenMRS, which is an Open Source Medical Record System used by healthcare service providers the world over. I decided to stick around with OpenMRS after the final deadlines went by. That, plus my decision to apply for Google Summer of Code, were probably the wisest decisions I have made  in my entire life.

My association with OpenMRS brought me many noteworthy achievements over the past six months. These victories are priceless, and I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of them if not for my decision to ‘stay on’ with the organization. It all goes to show that a little commitment and goodwill can take you a long way.

I feel that many students fail to make a very basic observation: that money isn’t the most important Google Summer of Code dividend. Of course, it’s the money that attracts many students (including myself) to these projects initially, and yes, the money does come in very handy. But what many students don’t realize is that it shouldn’t be just about the money. Google Summer of Code is all about connections and experience. Google is offering us a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect with the best and the brightest in the industry; a professional equivalent of ‘sustainable development’ for students. Google Summer of Code can only show us the way, the rest of the journey is up to us. Google gave us the opportunity and it’s up to us to make it work. It took me several months to realize this subtle truth.

At the time I started Google Summer of Code, I was an obscure student living in a small developing country with no real opportunity to move ahead in life. I had no connections, no access to academics in my preferred field of study and no hope of ‘changing the world’. Barely ten months later, I had traveled to three countries (all funded by benevolent mentors), co-authored two research papers (one of them with the co-founder of OpenMRS) and made important contacts from all over the world. I’d worked on some of the best health informatics projects on the planet, visited implementation sites, done cutting edge research work for leading American scholars, helped maintain implementation sites in Africa and, in my own little way, contributed to make the world a better place.

Six months ago, I used to write articles about others for our university newsletter. Now I’m a regular fixture in our local magazines. Instead of the usual chain mails and spam, my inbox now contains serious mails from academics and industry leaders. I’ve learned to communicate well, to work with diverse offshore based teams, to manage my time wisely and to make the best of any situation.

And what did all this cost me? Nothing more than simple good will and a moderate amount of work. Sure there is a certain amount of hard work involved, but if you must work, it should be for something you believe in, and will benefit your future. We have two options: to take the money and run or to be an active participant who benefits by helping improve their mentoring organization.

Writing in the wake of the Google Summer of Code 2012 announcement, I have just one hope - that the next generation of students will see Google Summer of Code for what it really is, and that they will make use of this golden opportunity to change their lives.

By Suranga Nath Kasthurirathne, Google Summer of Code 2011 student and OpenMRS contributor