THERE are a lot of ways to be a woman.
For some, womanhood is strength. For others it is overcoming barriers.
“Just stay authentically in whatever goal you want to accomplish,” 24-year-old Huda Fadlelmawla, said during an inspiring lunch forum marking International Women’s Day at Brisbane’s St James College.
“People will catch up with you, even if they didn’t agree with you in the beginning.
“When they see the accomplishment and the learnings you get from taking an unconventional pathway, they’ll clap – they’ll have no choice.”
Ms Fadlelmawla knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles and aiming high.
The young poet, educator, mental health advocate, dancer and workshop facilitator says her long-term dream is to become a surgeon.
“I’m on my path to actually making that happen,” she said, beginning the story of her own extraordinary journey that started with her mother fleeing Sudan when Huda was only four years old.
After six years in Cairo, Huda, her mother and her siblings were accepted to come to Australia.
“I had no prior schooling before coming to Australia, so my journey started here,” she said.
“My first barrier was to learn English, and to prove myself capable to do maths and English and science, and get the grades and make it to university.”
Mentor made all the difference
As a 10-year-old, a stranger, and joining a Year 5 class halfway through the year, Huda learned that the support of mentors was vital in making progress.
“I had a great mentor teacher when I was in Grade 5 – Mr Smith,” she said.
“I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t have a conversation, but I am mathematically wired – that’s just how my brain operates.
“He (Mr Smith) saw this and said ‘Let’s use this to prove to the principal that you can move ahead and not keep you back’.
“I realised I wasn’t learning anything in the classroom, so I would utilise my lunchtime to find things and study.
“So I came into Grade 5 halfway through and then got the highest maths grade, and I couldn’t speak English.
“I’m blessed that at every turning point in my career I have had one person who believed in me. I think you could be great.
“And the older I got, I became the person who thought I was great.”
Ms Fadlelmawla is studying mental health nursing – part of her medical pathway – but she does much besides that – including helping young refugees find their identity in Australia.
She leads workshops, advocates for change and, true to her own, authentic style, is not afraid to kick down barriers that stand in the way.
“A lot of time when women’s issues are discussed – they are discussed by men,” Ms Fadlelmawla said.
“When black people’s issues are discussed they are not discussed by black people, they are discussed by everybody else, (and) when youth issues are discussed they are not discussed by youth – and that’s the thing that I want to overcome.
“I’m an educator, I’ve been in this sector for six years as a guidance counsellor, I design programs and content for people, I’m trying to change the curriculum and I still walk into rooms and people say ‘Is she meant to be here?’
“My barriers come every single day but I don’t see them as a disadvantage, they are my super powers.
“I am able to get in to spaces and have conversations that make people so uncomfortable, and I’m willing to accept that journey.”
St James College principal Anne Rebgetz said International Women’s Day was an important annual event.
Dyslexia no barrier to achieving greatness
Also speaking at the St James luncheon, Jemima Hutton described how she was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 15, and developed many learning strategies to work around her academic difficulties.
She went on to become dux of her school and is now studying medicine.
Mrs Rebgetz said overcoming barriers was an important message for all women, noting that a large number of students at St James’ came from families where English was a second language.
“It’s about supporting each other in achieving what we want to achieve,” Ms Rebgetz said.
“In our society it is very important women are recognised equally because if there is a power imbalance that leads to a whole lot of things going wrong.
“So it really is a challenge.”