I come from the ‘Rangei hoza’ (Rangei clan) and ‘bhuter gusthi’ (ghost group) of Chakmas, which means my paternal side of the family is a descendant of a ghost. This must sound quite exotic to people who do not belong to the Chakma community. Chakmas comprise of less than 0.3% of Bangladeshi population and mostly live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). My identity struggle as an ethnic minority began at an early age. Unlike many other indigenous kids of CHT, I went to schools in different parts of the country due to the nature of my father’s job. I ended up being the only Chakma kid in my class in every school I went to. I figured I was somewhat different from other children. Usually it was not my behaviour, rather my flat nose and slanted eyes that gave it away. It was easy to stereotype me. Kids would often chant “Chakma! Chakma!” if they saw me pass by. Sometimes I would be asked whether my people (Chakmas) ate frogs and snakes, lived naked in the jungle and spoke Chinese language. These things upset me back then. It felt awful to be different and I did not exactly embrace my Chakma identity with a sense of pride or happiness.
Fed up by having to change my school frequently, my parents decided to send me to a boarding school when I was twelve. I ended up going to a girls’ military school. Every year the administration of Mymensingh Girls’ Cadet College selected approximately 50 girls from all over the country based on merit. Traditionally every batch usually had one or two indigenous students and hence I was easily accepted by my schoolmates. I became friends with a bunch of gifted girls from all over Bangladesh, with whom I grew up to discover myself. I soon discovered life was also not easy as a woman in Bangladesh. By the time my friends and I had reached the age of 16, even earlier, most of us experienced sexual harassment either by complete strangers or by men we already knew very well. Our parents and teachers became more protective and told us about all the things we should no do as women. But time told us we did not do anything to cause these, rather it was the patriarchal social system that enabled it and at the end blamed us for it.
I encountered the United World Colleges (UWCs) randomly when one day my father gave me a newspaper-cutting with an advertisement for a high school scholarship in the UK. I had just passed my Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and I was eligible to apply. Soon after I applied I was called for an interview by the Bangladesh National Committee consisting of eminent teachers and business leaders. A few days after my interview I received an offer for a full scholarship to study at United World College of the Atlantic (aka Atlantic College) to pursue my International Baccalaureate Diploma. My family had to bear the costs for air-fare and an annual allowance of 700 pounds. It was a rare case to be selected from a Bengali medium school to study at a UWC on a scholarship.
In summer 2000, at the age of sixteen, I flew to South Wales to begin a new chapter in my life at Atlantic College. The campus was breathtakingly beautiful. The main building was a 12th century castle overlooking the Bristol Channel. The presidents of Atlantic College were Nelson Mandela, Queen Noor of Jordan and Queen Elizabeth II of the UK. There were students from over 90 countries residing on campus. My roommates were from England, Namibia and Germany. There was no school uniform, no punishment system and we were allowed to colour our hair pink, blue or green if we wanted to. I became best friends with a girl from Montenegro and had a crush on a boy from Lithuania, even though I had never heard of their countries before. For the first time in my life, I felt proud to be different.
Besides the usual academic classes at Atlantic College, I made water rockets out of soda bottles for my science project that flew 30 meters high with a bike pump. I joined the Lifeguard Service for eight hours a week even though I did not know how to swim. I broke three of my front teeth in a cave while training for kayaking. The very next year I became a swimming and kayak instructor and went for a rock-hopping adventure in the sea. In the summer, we wore red shorts like the TV show ‘Baywatch’ and patrolled the beaches in South Wales. In winter, we went to old people’s homes and sang songs for the residents. In my free time, I took black and white photographs with a manual SLR camera and learnt to develop them with chemicals in a dark room underneath the castle. We had esteemed accomplished persons, including Nobel Laureates visiting the campus as speakers every week. I visited Budapest in a student exchange program and stayed there with a Hungarian family to learn about their culture. All these things would be unimaginable in my wildest dreams had I not been given the opportunity for an education at UWC Atlantic College.
The first UWC was founded in 1962 by the German educationalist Kurt Hahn, who envisioned engaging young people from all nations in finding peaceful means to bring together a world divided by political, racial and socio-economic barriers by learning from one another. My education at a UWC not only opened doors to the world’s top universities but also taught me to free myself from prejudices, to respect other cultures, and appreciate diversity – qualities which are essential for creating a more peaceful and sustainable future in today’s globalised world. I was finally able to embrace my multiple identities – as a Chakma, as a woman, as a Bangladeshi and as a global citizen. I believe volunteering is not a favour but rather a job, and that marginalization and oppression can also make us tougher. My global experience at Atlantic college showed me that diversity is beautiful and we can be united in our differences.
After completing my IB Diploma I went to Jacobs University Bremen in Germany to complete my B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and came back home to work for UNDP. In 2008, I was awarded a full scholarship by AusAID to study at the Australian campus of Carnegie Mellon University for pursuing my M.Sc in Information Technology Management. Besides having a successful career in information technology and development today, I have been involved in various community services that impact the wider communities I belong to. It is the UWC spirit and active idealism that motivated me to get involved in advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples and women of Bangladesh through campaigns, fundraising activities and research. Due to my commitment to positive social changes, I received the Australian Alumni Excellence Award for Young Alumni and was nominated as an Asia 21 Young Leader in 2012. Most recently I was selected as one of the top 100 youth participants from over 140,000 applicants for a week-long summer school in New York organised by United Nations Alliance of Civilisations and Education First. This gave me the opportunity to network with 99 other motivated youths from all around the world and to discuss pressing global challenges for peace building. We visited the United Nations Head Quarters in New York and were given the opportunity to interact with the Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson as well as other UN officials at a question answer session. Needless to say such experiences are priceless and life-changing.
If the only aim in your life is to become a successful doctor or an engineer you can go to any good school, but if you want to think outside the box, drive a positive social change and touch the lives of others, UWC is the right place for you. As Mahatma Gandhi once said “be the change you wish to see in the world”. A UWC education is the catalyst for becoming that change.
Trimita Chakm is a UWC Atlantic College alumnus(2000-2002). Currently she works at Coffey International Development as Alumni/MIS Manager for AusAID’sAustralia Awards in South Asia.
Originally published on The Star, The Daily Star, 20 September 2013 http://www.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/a-catalyst-for-social-change/