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Alumna reflects on lifechanging scholarship experience

Posted: 30 November 2023

Pakistan, Alumni, Disability, Impact,

Saira Ayub is an alumna from Pakistan who completed a Master of Education from Flinders University in South Australia with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Currently, she works as an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Government Graduate College for Women (Gulberg) in Lahore, Pakistan. While in Australia in 2021, Saira recorded a video outlining her experience studying and living in Australia as a person with disability.  

To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPWD), we caught up again with Saira back in Pakistan to learn about her experience studying in Australia, her plans and her message for IDPWD.

What did you study in Australia?

I commenced my Master of Education (Leadership & Management) at Flinders University in 2020 and after completing it in 2021, I returned to Pakistan. I selected the Australia Awards Scholarship with great confidence, because it stood out as an exemplary and inclusive scholarship program.

What made you passionate about your area of study?

One of the primary reasons for my decision was the Scholarship’s strong commitment to catering to the needs of disabled scholars like myself. The Australia Awards Scholarship addressed all aspects of my needs, like providing an assistive device and accessible accommodation. Furthermore, the support I received from the Scholarship administrators, the faculty and fellow students helped to create a welcome and inclusive environment.

In my home country, the teaching methods, learning approaches, assessment techniques and curriculum design have all too often overlooked the unique requirements of disabled students. By immersing myself in a Master of Education (Leadership & Management), I aimed to gain the necessary knowledge, insights and skills to foster an inclusive classroom environment where every student is supported and given an equal opportunity to excel. Throughout the Master of Education program, I was eager to explore innovative and evidence-based approaches to develop inclusive educational practices.

Saira at Flinders University.

Can you tell us about your experience in Australia, both at university and outside of university?

In Australia, I really enjoyed inclusive education. Flinders University had a dedicated disability support unit called the Health, Counselling & Disability Service that provided a range of services to students with disabilities, including assistance with accommodation, equipment and technology. The university had accessible parking spaces, ramps and lifts, accessible bathrooms, and other features that made it easier for students with disabilities to navigate the campus. The university also promoted inclusive teaching practices that support students with disabilities. This included providing flexible assessment options, allowing extra time for exams and using accessible teaching materials. Flinders University also offered a range of accommodations for students with disabilities, including note-taking support and assistive technology. I stayed in the university accommodation called Flinders Living, which was committed to providing an accessible and inclusive environment for students with disabilities. I really relished independent learning. It was a wonderful time of my life.

In South Australia, the buses, trains and trams have wheelchair accessible ramps or lifts, and designated areas for wheelchair users to travel safely. They also have tactile indicators and audio announcements to assist passengers with visual or hearing impairments. The drivers of those vehicles are trained to assist people with disabilities with boarding and disembarking. I was able to travel independently and enjoyed using disability-friendly transport.

Additionally, Flinders University arranged excursions to Victor Harbor, Urimbirra Open-Range Wildlife Park, Menz Chocolate Factory, Cleland Wildlife Park, Hahndorf, Mount Lofty Summit, Adelaide Botanic Garden and Wittunga Botanic Garden during the semester break. All these daytrips were inclusive and students with disabilities were able to travel safely and comfortably on regular buses and trains. Visits to beaches and lakes in South Australia were also breathtaking experiences for me.

Can you share how your Scholarship helped you develop your professional network?

My area of research at Flinders University was ‘Obstacles faced by students with disabilities in colleges due to the lack of inclusive educational framework in Pakistan’. The research provided me with valuable insights into the challenges faced by students with disabilities in our educational system. Since disability and diversity are not part of our education [in Pakistan], social awareness can only be created through advocacy. In Lahore, I have shared my Australian experience of inclusive teaching practices and effective strategies for accommodating students with disabilities with the University of Education, the Government Graduate College for Women (Gulberg) and the Government Associate College for Women (Salamatpura). I am also part of the Able Plus Organisation, which is working to establish an inclusive school with the help of community engagement. It is a wonderful experience to train teachers how to use assistive devices in the classroom for teaching, learning and assessment of students with disabilities.

A group of university students from different countries, several with their arms raised in celebratory gestures, pose in front of some Australia Awards banners

Saira with other Australia Awards scholars at Flinders University

How has your Australia Awards experience supported your career enhancement?

As a teacher, I applied the knowledge and strategies I gained during my master’s degree program at Flinders University to create a more inclusive classroom environment in Pakistan. I also shared my learnings with my colleagues and the school administration, which will help foster a more inclusive and supportive educational setting.

What are your plans for the future?

I wish to arrange more training sessions and workshops with the help of the Higher Education Department to educate heads of colleges and teachers about inclusion. As a writer, I have a plan to write a book about my Australian journey. I want to share my experience as a student, and especially as a disabled individual, focusing on accessibility and the attitude toward people with disability in Australia. I want to become a policy advocate and work with different non-governmental organisations and organisations for disabled persons to influence policy development.

Saira working as an Assistant Professor of Economics at the Government Graduate College for Women (Gulberg) in Lahore, Pakistan

What is your advice for someone thinking about applying for an Australia Awards Scholarship?

Because Australia Awards offers a variety of Scholarship programs across different fields of study, it is essential to identify the programs that align with your academic and career goals. Select a course that will advance your knowledge and skills but also contribute to the development of your home country. Be honest about your impairment (if you have one) in your application, and be sure to explain how you plan to overcome obstacles to accomplish your objectives.

Finally, do you have a message to share about International Day of Persons with Disabilities?

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let’s commit to inclusive education for women with disabilities. By removing barriers to learning, we not only enrich individual lives but also strengthen the fabric of our diverse society. Let every woman thrive, learn and lead. #EmpowerHerEducation.