Postcard from Sydney: Harnessing diversity to make a global impact

Afeeya Akhand, Advance member based in Sydney, with experience in Korea

Afeeya Akhand Contributor, Advance NextGen Participant

In the aftermath of International Women’s Day and Mardi Gras, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of diversity and inclusion. While these are common buzzwords in corporate speak, for me, it is about having the confidence to bring my authentic self to the table as a woman of colour.

While I was born and raised in Newcastle, NSW, I have always had a connection to Asia in one way or another. My parents are Bangladeshi immigrants who came to Australia in the 1980s and growing up my Dad often travelled for work. On one such occasion, we lived in Singapore for three years where I started kindergarten and attended Bengali language school on weekends with my two older siblings. Reflecting back, these weekly classes helped me to maintain a connection to my Bangladeshi culture.

Equally important as my Bangladeshi heritage is my Australian identity. After I finished my undergraduate degrees at the Australian National University, I studied Korean in Seoul.

In those three months, I became an unofficial “ambassador” for Australia to my classmates, who came from countries including Algeria, China, Japan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

I recall dispelling common myths about Australia, such as explaining to my incredulous classmates that it snows in parts of the country and the fact that Sydney is not the capital city.

Even though being an Australian with a Bangladeshi background is an inseparable part of who I am, I know equally as well that being a person of colour in Australia can be challenging and even traumatic. Australia proudly proclaims itself as a cultural “melting pot” but people of colour continue to be marginalised including in corporate leadership, politics, and media. Race-based violence is persistent, with minority communities rightfully responding through movements such as #StopAsianHate and #BlackLivesMatter. In addition, we recently marked the three-year anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack on New Zealand mosques, where an Australian white supremacist murdered fifty-one Muslim worshippers and injured countless others.

For a long time, I would react to yet another media report of violence against cultural or religious minorities with frustration and tears of anger. Realising that despair alone cannot end injustice, this year I started as a Youth Ambassador with the Multicultural Youth Affairs Network NSW.

In this role, I advocate for the interests of young multicultural Australians. Highlights so far have included providing feedback on the National Anti-Racism Framework and reviewing the UN Centre for Counter-Terrorism’s Peer-to-Peer Model of Youth Engagement.

Apart from my involvement in multicultural advocacy, I am currently studying a Masters in International Security at the University of Sydney. My interest in this field originally evolved from my experience working as a Graduate at the Department of Defence. Since then, I have also interned in the Foreign Policy and Defence Program at the United States Studies Centre and worked at a consulting firm for government and defence clients.

Admittedly, I’ve experienced imposter syndrome in many of these work and university settings. Despite being a native English speaker who was born in Australia, I have often felt undervalued or stereotyped as a Bangladeshi-Muslim female in her 20s.

But, as one speaker during the Advance NextGen Program put, everyone has valuable baggage to bring to the table. And if you want to convince others of your worth, you must convince yourself first.

For me, this is about challenging misconceptions that others may hold, and it is about projecting a confident persona who is unafraid of living her truth. Another key point from the NextGen Program which resonates is the importance developing quality connections. While social media platforms enable me to easily connect with like-minded professionals, it is more important to take the time to curate active and meaningful connections.

So, even though I am uncertain as to where my post-Masters career will take me, I know with clarity that I will hold these professional lessons close and continue to navigate the world as a proud woman of colour.

Connect with Afeeya

Afeeya Akhand is a Masters student in International Security at the University of Sydney. She has prior experience in the foreign policy and defence spaces through Federal government, consulting and think tank organisations. She is also keenly interested in multicultural advocacy, currently serving as a Youth Ambassador with the Multicultural Youth Affairs Network NSW.