I came to ANU when I was 16, having finished school a little earlier than is usual. I remember my brother dropping me off at Toad Hall, and being greeted by Alex, a young Chinese Malay student who became one of my best friends right through uni. He always looked out for me, would wait up when I was out late, and cook and feed me.
"Is Alex your real name?" I asked him once. "No, my name's Hiang", he said. "I'm never going to call you Alex again," I said, and he changed his name back to Hiang that year. I'm still in touch with Hiang, who is now in Singapore and heads up Mastercard for the Asia Pacific region.
It was great to be in Toad Hall with so many overseas students. This was a time when the multiculturalism of Australia was rarely reflected across campus, and so many of us from diverse backgrounds just felt drawn to each other. You just found the people who you felt were your tribe.
I used to think I was the only 'Padma' in Toad Hall. I was surprised when I started receiving messages about English Literature, as I was studying Law, and it turned out there was actually another 'Padma' in Toad Hall and the messages were actually meant for her.
Padma Menon was highly skilled in Kuchipudi, an Indian classical dance style. She taught me initially and soon she formed a dance company Kailash, which I joined and toured all around Australia and the world. There were quite a few ANU students who joined us as well. Kailash won a lot of acclaim and received Australia Council funding.
We would both dance a lot - almost every day before major productions. We wanted to make Indian dance accessible to the Australian audience. During performances, we always explained in English what the next piece was about. Today, Padma runs Moving Archetypes, a program focusing on physical movement and spiritual connection through dance. I chose a different career path, though I do miss dancing.
ANU shaped my strong sense of social justice. It was the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, and we would march down the streets in solidarity with our Chinese fellow students. I also did volunteer and paid work in Parliament House. ANU gave me that rare window into politics and social change like no other university could.
I also studied Sanskrit during my Bachelor of Asian Studies. ANU was the only university in Australia that offered Sanskrit study. As someone who moved here from India when I was 11, it allowed me to connect with another important aspect of my culture. It was also why my parents let me move to Canberra from Sydney. Imagine Indian parents saying, "No, you can't study Sanskrit!" That simply doesn't happen.
My advocacy of women from diverse and vulnerable backgrounds comes from my own sense of identity as an immigrant woman. And my experience with dance helps me today in my work in women's safety. Dance taught me how to explain what I am doing to an audience that doesn't understand it. It helps me raise awareness by connecting people to the experiences and challenges faced by women.
My work today is about breaking down barriers. And ANU was where it all began.
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