My husband, Shahidullah, was coming to Australia to do a masters through an Australian International Development Assistance Bureau scholarship. Since four years is a long time, I turned down a Commonwealth Scholarship for Canada, and decided to come with him to ANU. When I think back now, that was one of the best decisions of my life.
I got an ANU PhD scholarship and started my PhD straight away, while Shahidullah finished his masters before starting his PhD. I was based in the National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH) along with three other PhD students - Bruce, Jenny and Lin. They looked after us very well at NCEPH, and they became my family. I have so many connections from my time here.
My supervisor was Professor John McCallum. I used to hate when he would mark my work, with just "Naila, think" in red ink. I wondered why he wouldn't just tell me the answer outright. He would always reply, "No, this is your work, you should think." I realised he was encouraging me to be independent, which really helped me for the rest of my career.
At the time, I was also quite scared of computers. They were very new to me. Bruce Shadbolt, my fellowmate who shared an office with me, would come and press buttons for me when I would panic. He would always kindly reassure me the computers wouldn't explode. He was very patient with me until I learned to be confident with that technology.
Another researcher, Camilla, became a close friend. My husband had to return to Bangladesh for a few months, and she kept me company through that difficult time. When my first son Shayan was born in the middle of my PhD, she let me use her oven for baking treats and taught me how to sew baby clothes on her sewing machine. To this day, Shayan and my younger son Shiban call her their beloved 'Camilla auntie'.
I loved how my experiences at ANU taught me about Australian culture and opened my mind to cultures that were different from my own. I remember that every time a PhD student presented something, there was a tradition that they would celebrate with champagne. The first time I experience this, I refused the champagne and said I was fine with water. The next fortnight, someone brought in juice for me, and also passed that juice around with others, so I could be part of the celebration.
In Bangladesh, I felt like schools and colleges were not as encouraging about asking questions or expressing your opinions. I think this, and how culturally different Bangladesh was from Australia, was part of why I was often too shy to ask for help. John, Bruce, Camilla, Jenny, Lin and all my friends at NCEPH helped me to stop being quiet and to be independent, to open my mind, to have a sense of community, and to continue learning.
Shahidullah and I got our degrees on the same day - 30th October 1994 -with him graduating in the morning and me in the afternoon. The ANU Reporter wanted to do a short story on us, so we went and met with them after conferrals. The story ended up being entitled "Doctors duo return home with a wealth of knowledge", and we made sure Shayan was sitting in our arms in the photo.
Though we had to leave for a little while after our PhDs, we came back to Canberra since we loved it here so much. Today, we are settled here. I entered the public service, and am now working at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. I still wear a sari and head scarf, but I never feel out of place.
My sons were inspired by my and Shahidullah's degrees. Over 20 years since he was in that ANU Reporter photo, Shayan graduated from ANU himself, doing a double degree in actuarial science and finance. His wife, my daughter-in-law Tashfia, also graduated from ANU with a degree in psychology (honours). My younger son, Shiban, graduated from the University just this December, in law (honours) and finance.
When I would pick up my sons from uni over the years, I would feel really homesick. Even with all the new buildings, I still say with fondness when I am around, "Oh, this is my university". And we are truly an ANU family.