“I used to be ashamed of my dark skin and wished I was fairer so that I would not be the object of ridicule by my classmates,” remembers T. Inthra.
The simple, quiet and frail school librarian was often ignored by teachers who refused to see her potential.
“When I was in primary six and preparing for the Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR), my class teachers identified a few students who were seen as having the potential to score all As. These students were closely monitored and given extra coaching to ensure they do well. At first, I felt hurt that I was not considered to have the potential to excel but that hurt helped to motivate me to study harder,” she said.
Her hard work paid off — when the results were announced, Inthra was among the top students who scored 7As in the UPSR.
“My teachers were surprised because they never expected me to do so well. Maybe they thought a rubber tapper’s daughter would not be able to get such good results,” she said.
Inthra’s mother, Ananthy is a rubber tapper who gets a daily wage of RM30 (less than USD 10). However, on rainy days, she is unable to work and thus has no income. Her father Thanabalan is a contractor who is paid on project basis and hence the family has no steady source of income.
Inthra’s academic success was a turning point in her life. After this no one dared to underestimate her.
“Despite my academic achievement, I was very shy and preferred to keep to myself. I was afraid to speak up. So, when my secondary school teacher told me about the Maharani programme, I decided to try it,” she said.
Inthra participated in the Maharani camps and learned to overcome her fears and mustered up the courage to speak in front of a large audience.
“That was the first time I spoke in front of so many people. I was nervous and scared but after I finished speaking, I realised it was not that bad,” she said.
The camps also taught Inthra to develop leadership skills, build her character and inspired her to explore her creativity.
“One of the exercises we did was goal setting. I remember walking to the front of the room and writing ‘doctor’ under my ambition. Writing it down actually helped me a lot in visualising my dream. It’s a lesson I follow till today. Whenever I want to achieve something, I write it down and that helps me stay focused on my goal and work towards achieving it,” she said.
Inthra is now 21 and is a third-year student of Medicine at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in East Malaysia. She hasn’t forgotten where she came from and who she used to be.
She regularly goes back to address the girls enrolled in the Maharani programme and show them what they are capable of. She also regularly visits the Maharani Learning Lab in Sungai Siput, Perak every time she comes back to her hometown for semester breaks.
“Two years ago, during one of my speeches to the Maharani girls, my mother was also present. As I was speaking, I saw the tears in my mother’s eyes as she proudly watched her shy, quiet daughter on stage. I was there as a participant before, watching and waiting for someone to guide me and to discover my potential. Today, I am on stage speaking to other girls like me as an example of what they can do. Joining the Maharani programme was one of the best decisions I have taken,” she says.
“My word of advice to the girls out there – no matter how difficult or unachievable your dreams may seem right now, if you persevere and work hard, one day you will succeed,” she adds.
The Maharani programme, initiated in Malaysia by RYTHM Foundation in 2010, has helped over 7,500 girls from poor and marginalised communities.
It provides the girls, aged 13 to 16, with the skills and knowledge to enable them to achieve their full potential.