What I wish I had known when I graduated high school

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From filmmakers to astronauts, leading women offer advice to the class of 2020.

Uncertainty about the future is a normal feeling for graduates — even more so for those graduating during a global pandemic. To help the class of 2020 navigate these challenging times, we invited six women from around the world to share what they wish they had known when they finished high school.

From a Ugandan conservationist and gorilla expert to Japan’s first female astronaut in space and an Indian film director, they have broken down barriers, overcome challenges and accomplished extraordinary feats. Here is their advice to you, the next generation of female leaders:

(Courtesy of Amarachi Nwosu / Malala Fund)

“The most valued part of my life is that I have lived, met and worked amongst wonderful people who encouraged and fortified within me the concept: ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ I truly believe in the power of education. Education enables us to envision and pursue our dreams. Believe in yourself and take one step closer at a time towards your dream!”

Dr. Chiaki Mukai, astronaut, doctor, educator and first Japanese woman in space

(Courtesy of Michelle Burns)

“On behalf of Starbucks, congratulations to all the incredible young women graduating from high school. At Starbucks, we have an internal mantra we like to use — STRONG LIKE COFFEE — and I think each of you represent that mindset with what you’ve been able to accomplish thus far and what you will accomplish in the future. Your path ahead is full of so much potential! If I could go back and give my high school self some advice, I would tell her that anything is possible, and there isn’t just ‘one way’ to do something. Your journey may be different than how you first imagine it, and that is awesome. Be your own person. Stay true to you.”

 — Michelle Burns, Senior Vice President of Global Coffee and Tea, Starbucks

(Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur)

“I wish I had been told that life is not all that predictable and that you often have to fight hard and persevere in the face of adversity to achieve your dreams. I have always wanted to be a veterinarian and, at the age of 18, after starting a wildlife club in my high school in Uganda, I decided to become a veterinarian who also works with wildlife. Once I got to the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, I found that the work was more difficult than I had anticipated and the students who got the highest grades were those who studied the hardest, so I learnt to work hard and sacrifice my leisure time in order to accomplish my dreams.

While pursuing my veterinary degree I got the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, one of the three Trimates who the famous paleontologist, Dr. Louis Leakey, supported along with Dr. Jane Goodall and the late Dr. Dian Fossey to study the great apes: orangutans, chimpanzees and mountain gorillas respectively. I bought her book and she wrote in it: ‘Follow your dreams and the rest will follow.’ Her words gave me hope and direction on where I should focus my energies because, in life, you get so many distractions and you may get discouraged by people who don’t understand what you want. I was able to achieve my dream of contributing to the conservation of mountain gorillas and other wildlife in Africa by remaining focused and fighting for what I believed in, and the right people came along to support me to accomplish my dreams. I encourage you all to dream big and to follow those dreams. It will take hard work and dedication and you will find challenges along the way, but when you are working and succeeding in a field you are passionate about, it will all be worth it.”

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, conservationist and founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH)

(Courtesy of Graham Barclay)

“When I graduated school I wish I’d been able to tell myself: don’t worry, don’t stress. So long as you aim for what your inner soul and instinct says, the world has a way of working out. Have a purpose in life to make things better for those around you in whatever field you choose. You are here for a reason and when you get to my age you realise that completely. So, be secure that you too will one day understand your purpose, but today look forward to enjoying life and discovering who you are as you start the next phase of your impactful life.”

Gurinder Chadha OBE, film director, producer and co-founder of Bend-It Networks

(Courtesy of Mollie Rose)

“I wish I’d known that fitting in and being like everyone else is completely overrated. And how much strength and confidence comes from standing out and being your true, authentic self rather than wanting to be the person you think everyone wants you to be. As I’ve got older, I’m getting better at trusting my instincts more — having the conviction that your voice and opinion are valuable is so important. I wish I had truly believed that I was strong enough to speak out against things that didn’t sit right with me, and known that I, like everyone, had the power to change them.”

Amika George, student and founder of Free Periods, a campaign to end period poverty

(Courtesy of Aya Chebbi)

“When I graduated secondary school, I followed my family’s dream to be an engineer and went to engineering school [at] école préparatoire d’ingénieurs — I failed the first semester and by the second semester I dropped university. I failed my first year of university because I did not study what I really wanted, which was pharmacy. My scoring was not enough with a minor difference and we had one uni of pharmacy in Tunisia. I almost fell into depression because I had always been top of my class in primary and secondary schools. After a tough summer, locking myself in my room, I went to four universities in different cities in Tunisia looking for what I want, what am I good at [and] my identity, before I landed at University Tunis El Manar — switching completely to humanities and studying international relations, which I excelled in with my scientific background.

I learnt the hard lesson, which is why I waited four years before going for a master’s program. For someone who had failed freshman year at uni, I would have never imagined to get into SOAS University of London, get the Mo Ibrahim scholarship out of thousands and graduate with distinction. Nine years after my graduation from secondary school, I was appointed the first-ever Special Envoy on Youth of the African Union and the youngest diplomat in the organization. So, few lessons to share with you: your power is your radical self, find it! Find your true self, your identity, pursue excellence and it’s okay to fail, you will thrive afterwards.”

Aya Chebbi, the first African Union Special Envoy on Youth

About the author

McKinley Tretler is communications manager at Malala Fund. She’s on the hunt for the perfect Oreo milkshake. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.


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