For 9 years I’ve worked with refugee and disadvantage students to help them with language and to empower them to achieve greater things. These incredibly talented and gifted children don’t believe in themselves, constantly told they’re not good enough because of their circumstances. E.g constant abuse, poverty, stigma of where they grew up, skin color and social stereotypes. One of the most powerful and life changing things anyone can do for one of these students is to believe in them and tell them how incredible and capable they are. For many of them it would be the first time anyone has ever said it to them. That is powerful, believe me, I was one of those students.
I grew up in South Western Sydney at the height of the drug trade, we lived in a tiny flat and my parents struggled to make ends meet. One of my earliest memories of primary school is stepping over passed out heroin and cocaine addicts in the stair-well of our building. I had to be extra careful not to step on any used needles. Our neighbour was a drug dealer & importer, it was a corrupt venture the police were in on, so it didn’t matter who you told, nothing was ever done.
The year I graduated, my high school was ranked the worst in the state. The odds were already against me. Located in a deprived area and classified as a ‘disadvantaged school’, it would be good if I even finished school, let alone went to university. Doubt was already there, I was used to being told “you’re not good/rich/smart enough”, “you’re from a shit school” and “Is this even possible for you?”.
I genuinely didn’t think I’d make it to university at all. I’d somehow settled on a rubbish collector as a decent profession. Until my chemistry teacher kept me back after class one day, she said she saw her younger self in me and didn’t want me to make the same mistake she did. She dropped out of medicine because she didn’t think she was good enough, because of where she came from. She said that she believed in me and that I could be anything I wanted. I got teary eyed, I had a lump in my throat, no words came out, I was so moved, I’d never heard anyone say that about me before, I was overwhelmed.
I worked hard, self learned courses at the library, graduated as DUX (Valedictorian). But still it wasn’t quite good enough, it was luck. It’s the perpetual curse of the disadvantaged student, where you worry about not only your marks, your identity and whether you actually achieved what you did.
At 17, I got into uni, I thought it was some fluke because I wasn’t supposed to. The first in my family to go. I was initially enrolled into Science combined with Law, but that little voice was there in the back of my head. I was surrounded by overconfident, peacocking & at times rude, wealthy private school kids. Somehow the voice convinced me ‘I wasn’t good enough’ and that ‘I’d soon be found out’ because ‘the others could tell I wasn’t like them’. I took my piercings out, didn’t tell people what area I was from. I couldn’t shake the voices in my head. I dropped out of Law, even before I started the course, before I even gave myself a chance.
Then I took another offer for a pure science stream in a course called Advanced Science equally as hard as Law to get into (but socially perceived as far less prestigious). The university was far and ranked in the top 4 universities in the country. I travelled 4 -5 hours every single day to get to uni and back on public transport. I’d wear clothes that fit in the morning and in the evenings take my makeup off, change into oversized mens trackpants & a hoody as I didn’t want to be heckled or assaulted by junkies on the train. I figured if the junkies couldn’t tell I was female, I’d be invisible. An extreme but necessary measure which seemed to work well for me. Unfortunately a couple ofthe girls I knew weren’t so lucky and were added to the national rape victim statistics. Even the cops didn’t care when they reported it, so you had to take matters into your own hands.
It wasn’t all bad, every fornight I’d buy myself a 10 pack of KFC wings and munch it the entire journey whilst reading self development books. Sometimes I’d strike up conversations with random elderly passengers, watch people socialise and whenever it was needed offer tissues to crying lonely passengers.
However, one thing was constant, I didn’t want any other students who grew up where I did, to think they were any less than any other student because of where they came from, what school they went to or what they’d experienced. I joined a volunteer program called ASPIRE, which breaks down barriers, motivates and empowers students from disadvantaged communities, with the message that no matter where you come from, what anyone has said to you, I believe in you and there is a place for you at university if you want it. One of the most magical moments was when an aboriginal girl came to one of the workshops I was running, at the start she said that she was too dumb to go to university and by the end of the day she said that we’d opened her eyes and she feels like she can go.
At University, a class of over 500 whittled down to 10, I was one of them, I made it to honours year. Some of the other students casually told me their parents were professors or from highly educated backgrounds who helped them read over their work. I was unlike the others, the first to go to uni in my family.
With financial difficulties at home, I took on two jobs whilst travelling 4-5 hours a day to uni and back. Some days I was so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed. Visions of a better existence than the one I had kept me self- motivated. I graduated university with first class honours and two publications. One publication genuinely had me surprised it was covered by Time, BBC and Forbes. Yet, somehow I couldn’t tell whether that was done by me or was it just luck? Perhaps ‘luck’ is just another name for hard work your mind hasn’t acknowledged yet as being done by you?
I took a year off. However, I continued working with refugee & disadvantaged students. I did some motivational speeches at local schools and was selected as an Australian-Thai Youth Ambassador, a joint initiative between the Australian & Thai Government. I spent time in Thailand teaching English and motivating students at a charity run disadvantaged school. It was such a rewarding experience I will never forget. I only have a few pictures from this time, as I always hated being in pictures.
However, whilst teaching in Thailand I noticed something I hadn’t seen in Australia, students being ostracised for their dark skin, those students in turn felt bad about themselves like they weren’t good enough. It was the same in each class the darkest students seemed to be the least popular. One day I went up to one of the girls that kept to herself, she was wearing pigtails in her hair, I told her she looked beautiful. She just stared at me, like no one had ever said it to her before. She told me she wasn’t pretty because she didn’t have light skin like the celebrities on TV. Hearing that broke my heart.
I realised there was this whole world of disadvantage based on skin color against children that academic literature had overlooked. Overlooked in favour of research and development of skin whitening products – the main reason behind the problem. With the determination to do something about what I’d seen, I wrote a research proposal. I used friends in Switzerland to access and send library journals to me (as I no longer had access). It was an original idea from start to finish, a piece I was actually proud of. I received acceptance letters from the only two institutions I applied to – University College of London & the University of Oxford. My craziest dream literally came true. The girl who lived next to a drug den, went to one of the worst schools in the country, was told she wouldn’t get into university, some how made it to the best university in the world.
From what I’ve learnt working with disadvantaged students & being one myself. All I have to say is the ability & drive does not come from the school you went to, where you grew up or how much money you have – it comes from within you. Sometimes you need someone to believe in you, to make you believe in yourself. If you’re willing to work for it, the universe will give it to you (even if it takes you around a few circles first).
It’s not the school, it’s the student. Always remember that.