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Shehelah Ousman on the life-changing power of education

January 1 | 4 minute read

Shehelah Ousman Hero 16x9

Words by Christie Sinclair

Originally published on | June 6

Here at MECCA, advancing equality is a key focus of our social change initiative, MECCA M-Power.

In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.

At just 21 years of age, Shehelah Ousman is already a young leader to watch. In 2021, she was chosen to represent politically engaged young people in Parliament as the Victorian Youth Premier – which saw her put forward a Bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility. This came while balancing a degree in gender studies with her roles as Queer and Respect Committee representative at Trinity College, Diversity and Inclusion Leader at the Skyline Education Foundation and store host right here at MECCA.

With a resumé that reflects her passion for making a difference, it seems anything is possible for Ousman, who is focused on serving the community. “I would love to work towards creating equitable futures in my community and more broadly – whether that’s through grassroots advocacy, policy, politics or in the legal system,” Ousman reveals when asked about her goals. “I would also love to set a strong example for young people like myself who could never have dreamt of entering certain spaces and roles and ensuring that I am not the first or the last to do so.”

But Ousman’s future didn’t always look this bright. Here, she opens up about the hardships she faced throughout her early years, how a second chance at education changed the course of her life and what drives her to make a tangible difference in the diversity and inclusion space.

If I’m not moving forward and through the world without thinking about those who will inherit it, I am not moving consciously.
Shehelah Ousman

The journey to Australia

Ousman was two years of age when she and her mother, along with her newborn sister, fled Sri Lanka and a life of domestic violence. “She sacrificed all she had ever known to provide us with opportunities she couldn’t guarantee in Sri Lanka,” Ousman shares. While living in supported accommodation, Ousman’s mother worked tirelessly to ensure her daughters could attend kindergarten and primary school, with Ousman later picking up work to help with household costs. “My capacity to complete VCE [Victorian Certificate of Education] – despite being an incredibly engaged and aspirational student – looked bleaker by the day,” she shares.

A life-changing offer

Around the time her situation at home began to decline, Ousman was offered a life-changing opportunity. “A very kind teacher at my high school, who had been keeping tabs on me, offered me an application form for the Skyline Education Foundation; I had never heard of it before, but it sounded too good to be true,” Ousman recalls. “That night I went home and drafted my application and that’s when my life began to look more hopeful.”

The Skyline Program is the first of its kind in Australia, offering financial, educational and emotional assistance to high ability or academically talented VCE students — many of whom have experienced social or economic adversity. It was something of a lifeline for Ousman, who no longer had to spend her spare time working to pay for textbooks or uniforms. “Skyline provided me with academic enrichment, community and a ray of hope amidst the backdrop of a deteriorating home life,” Ousman says.

MECCA has offered me an idea of what workplace culture could look like – supportive, passionate and open-minded.
Shehelah Ousman

With education comes opportunity

Since graduating from the Skyline Education Foundation program, Ousman was offered her top three university preferences. Now in her final semester of a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, majoring in gender studies and minoring in politics and international relations, Ousman acknowledges the power of education, noting that learning from academics has provided her with “a renewed understanding of how many ways there are to make a tangible difference in the world.”

Working towards an equitable world

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, we’re still an estimated 135.6 years away from reaching true gender parity. In terms of how we can create more equitable futures for all, Ousman explains, “We all need to be accountable for any active or complicit involvement in upholding structures that entrench disadvantage – factors including race, class, disability, geographical location, history and culture.”
Learning from others is an honour, especially from those whose lived experience lends them amazing amounts of expertise.
Shehelah Ousman

On what drives her to make change

“First and foremost, I want to make my mother proud – her values, spirit and words guide everything I aspire to do,” Ousman shares when reflecting on what motivates her to push for change. “I want her to know and feel as though every sacrifice she made, every skipped meal and home haircut, every sleepless night and tireless day, every odd job and tear shed was worth it.”

At the same time, Ousman explains she’s also driven by a desire to guarantee a different path for others like herself, “because if I’m not moving forward and through the world without thinking about those who will inherit it, I am not moving consciously.”

On how she landed the role at MECCA

It’s not entirely by chance that Ousman and MECCA’s worlds intersected. As the Skyline Education Foundation’s program partner, MECCA – through our philanthropic initiative, M-Power – invited Ousman and a close friend to speak on a panel at a MECCA leadership conference. “We were approached and asked if we’d like to apply for the Summer Host Program and the rest is history!” Ousman shares.

Her role at MECCA may seem an unusual avenue alongside her work within the community, but Ousman sees it as another opportunity for growth and development. "MECCA has offered me an idea of what workplace culture could look like – supportive, passionate and open-minded,” she reflects.

Her role as a store host has also inspired her drive to advocate for more representative beauty standards: “My personal mission is to ensure the beauty content and individuals I look up to are representative. They are the ones who have taught me to love my brown skin, wide nose and curly hair.”

My personal mission is to ensure the beauty content and individuals I look up to are representative.
Shehelah Ousman

Ousman’s advice to others who want to make a difference

When asked to share her advice for other young women who want to make a positive difference in their own communities, Ousman reiterates the importance of education and knowledge. “Learning from others is an honour, especially from those whose lived experience lends them amazing amounts of expertise.”

Looking ahead

Reflecting on what she hopes to achieve by age 25, Ousman’s attention for the next few years is understandably still set on improving the quality of life for marginalised individuals. “I would love the opportunity to work for an advocacy organisation like the Human Rights Law Centre, Minus18 or the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre,” she says.

Away from her work within the community, her plans are much like any other 21 year old. “I hope to have my licence (for context, I don’t have my Learner Permit yet at the ripe age of 21)!” she says, adding, “I would love to have a post-graduate degree under my belt, live in a different country for some time, take part in some form of formal culinary training, finally read all the books on my shelf and live near a cafe that does justice to the oat milk latte – they are my weakness.”

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