Aaqilah Afraa: Finding My Voice

“I want to empower others that were in the same shoes as me.”

Aaqilah Afraa applied to join the 2019 cohort of the Fellowship with the goal of starting her own social enterprise that empowers individuals in her community. Read on to hear her own #StoryWorthTelling!

Aaqilah’s personal struggle during her childhood molded her to who she is today.

Coming from a conservative background, I was always aware of the social expectations placed on me. Broadly speaking, women weren’t encouraged to work, or run a business, or have a voice. I felt that while other societies were moving forward, ours was still learning.

Feeling disconnected, I often looked for people’s approval to the point where I’d agree with others just so they’ll ‘like’ me more.

I felt like I couldn’t express my own voice, character, or personality.

I felt invisible.

Two key figures in Aaqilah’s life helped her believe in herself.

Luckily I always had an ally growing up, someone that cheered me on as I struggled to find myself – my grandfather. He would always give me words of advice as I grew up and encouraged me to be a better person, to realise my potential.

“One day,” he told me, “I think you can take over the family business.”

His words struck deep and his belief in me pushed me on, no matter the challenges I faced.

Another figure who believed in me is my Form 3 English teacher, Cikgu Kamalaveni. When she asked me to join the school’s debate team, I was utterly shocked! Why would she pick someone like me? I’ve never even done anything related to public speaking! I was hesitant at first, but she kept on encouraging me and said that she saw potential in me to be a great debater. I decided to join the team.

In hindsight, it was the best decision of my life and I’m thankful Cikgu Kamalaveni believed in me, when even I didn’t. Debating transformed me from a shy child to a self-assured young adult with a voice.The proudest moment of my debating “career” was when my team, representing Penang, emerged as runner-ups of a national-level competition!

Debate opened up my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities, and I loved every second of it. Through it I learnt to speak out and stand my ground, to stop conceding to others and develop my own independent thoughts.

I had found my voice.

Armed with a voice, Aaqilah found the next chapter of her journey with Teach For Malaysia.

While attending Curtin University, a friend of mine introduced me to a non-profit organisation called Teach For Malaysia. After joining a few events and attending some talks hosted by them, my interest grew rapidly.

What attracted me initially was Teach For Malaysia’s ambitious vision: the belief that all children should have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Reading the inspiring stories of Malaysians choosing to give back to their communities by being a cikgu reminds me of how Cikgu Kamalaveni had helped me find my voice; and I want to be that pillar of confidence for my students too. It’s also exciting to know I’ll be a part of a strong community of like-minded individuals who are all fighting for the same goal of ending education inequity.

But in the end what really reeled me into joining the Fellowship is the vast community of Alumni, who have finished the 2-year programme and went on to start their own social enterprises, NGOs, and other really cool projects!

Why? Because I dream, one day, to start a social enterprise to empower women that were in the same position as me. To show them that it’s OK to work, to own your own business, to be independent, to have a voice.

I joined the Fellowship to develop myself into a leader in the classroom, while empowering students along the way. To one day develop my leadership and organisational skills so that one day I’ll be able to run my own successful social enterprise!

But Aaqilah had to work hard to get her family’s support.

Of course it wasn’t smooth sailing joining the Fellowship! My family was against the idea of me joining a 2-year programme to ‘become a teacher’.

“Why do you want to throw away your degree? Your career? Your life?” They asked me.

What they didn’t realise was that this was my path to success, and that nothing was going to stop me. For a whole year, I slowly exposed my family to the amazing community behind Teach For Malaysia. From reading about the impact that’s being created all around the country and seeing the success that the Alumni of the programme achieved, they slowly but surely opened their eyes and saw the fulfillment and success I seeked through the Fellowship.

And now one year later, my family has decided to support my choice to join Teach For Malaysia.

And me? I’m ready to write the next chapter of my story.

Aaqilah Afraa graduated from Curtin University with a BA in Accounting, and is currently working as a Professional Fundraiser for UNICEF. She applied for the 2019 cohort of the Fellowship and is set to embark on her two-year journey next year.

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