WHEN Tennyson Rodrigo came to Australia from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to study chemical engineering in 1952, he was so ''exotic'' that the Herald ran a front page picture of him attending a ball, and he was invited on to ABC Radio to introduce Australian audiences to the sitar.
Mr Rodrigo was one of the University of NSW's first international students and an early recruit of the Colombo Plan, a government ''soft power'' scholarship program that sought to develop the Asian region by educating its best students in Commonwealth countries. Back then White Australia was still in place and the University of NSW was a collection of makeshift classrooms and dormitories.
Now Mr Rodrigo is 82, the campus is a multibillion-dollar hi-tech mini-city, and international education is the state's second biggest export industry after mining, injecting $6 billion a year into the NSW economy. In a survey this year of 12 leading global cities, Sydney had by far the most international students, with about 180,000, nearly twice as many as the runner-up London with 99,000.
Many of the 20,000 students educated under the Colombo Plan between 1952 and 1985 went on to hold senior positions in the public and private sectors of their home countries, including the Indonesian Vice-President, Boediono.
Mr Rodrigo established Sri Lanka's first oil refinery and first nitrogenous plant, before taking up senior positions in banking, consulting and industry. He is among Colombo Plan alumni returning to the Kensington campus this week for a gala dinner celebrating the plan's 60th anniversary that will be addressed by the Premier, Barry O'Farrell.
Ngiam Tong Yuen, 73, (chemical engineering, 1962) worked to establish electricity, gas and water supplies for Singapore before moving on to leadership roles at Exxon. Hiep Tien Luu, 69, also a chemical engineering graduate, co-founded the respected Lotus University in Ho Chi Minh City.
Jennie Lang, the vice-president, advancement, at the University of NSW, said the success of Colombo graduates ''really spearheaded trade, economic, scientific, industry and education-based collaboration with Australia''.
The chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, Tim Williams, said international students helped create a virtuous circle in the economy, because cities with higher densities of graduates ''are the ones that the world's talented people are flocking to''.
The Colombo Plan was so successful in developing long-standing relationships in the region that the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, proposes to revive it, though his version would have a more ''mutual'' flavour, with Australian students studying in Asian countries as well.