Osman Ali-Khelil’s life experiences show us why we need the Victorian African Communities Action Plan (VACAP) education initiatives and how his perspective can help to bring them to life.
The new Senior Project Officer for the VACAP education initiatives arrived in his role at the Department of Education and Training after completing tertiary studies at the University of Melbourne in commerce and history. He brings significant private and public sector experience to the role, including completing the Victorian Government Graduate Program. But his qualifications aren’t the only attributes that he brings to the position.
Born in Sudan after his parents fled the Eritrean War of Independence, Osman arrived in Melbourne at a young age on a humanitarian visa.
“My parents’ journey has influenced me deeply. Mum left her siblings in Sudan and Eritrea – none of her family were here. She sacrificed a lot for our education and our upbringing – and that’s a testament to her.”
“She, like many African mothers, taught me the importance of working hard and remaining resilient, even though things weren’t easy, she powered on.”
Even with significant challenges to overcome, education remained a priority for his family. His mother relocated the children to an outer-suburban residence to better access those opportunities.
Breaking down barriers in education
But the school system wasn’t the most natural place for Osman who didn’t always feel like he fitted in.
“Growing up black in Victoria wasn’t easy. When I look back on it, I had a number of teachers who couldn’t relate to my experience and stereotyped me. There were moments where I lost confidence in my ability to achieve.”
While studying Year 11, he contracted a tutor for himself with his earnings from a part-time job. The tutor helped improve his self-esteem by providing the right support, which motivated him to get better grades.
Growing up black in Victoria wasn’t easy. When I look back on it, I had a number of teachers who couldn’t relate to my experience and stereotyped me. There were moments where I lost confidence in my ability to achieve.
“It lifted my studies from Cs to straight-As because I had a teacher who would listen to me and believed in me. It was that emotional and mental support that made a big difference – it really helped reinvigorate my spirit and self-confidence.”
Although Osman’s professional journey took him to areas outside education, it’s easy to see how these experiences inherently inform his role as the Senior Project Officer who will drive the delivery of education initiatives under the Victorian African Communities Action Plan.
The initiatives he will coordinate include the Homework Club Grants Program, which provides funding for 12 community organisations to deliver inclusive, culturally responsive homework support, an after-school program and parent engagement activities for African Victorian students across the state.
Creating a sense of belonging
School Community Liaison Officers (SCLOs) will also operate in eight schools and up to 23 surrounding schools across Melbourne with a high proportion of students with African heritage. The officers will act as a positive conduit between schools, parents and students – they’ll build awareness of African Victorian student needs, ensure parents can get involved in school processes and foster student goals and wellbeing.
The SCLOs model enables the African communities to own, lead and be part of solutions for their community and create lasting change – something that encapsulates VACAP’s underlying values of building community skills and capacity through partnership.
I’m hoping the program will help to change the narrative – so we can focus a lot more on talking about African students who have achieved in education.
“This is what homework clubs are doing – trying to provide a safe space for students and put them on a journey together so they aren’t alone anymore.”
“The SCLOs will influence how culturally responsive and safe schools are for African students. They will help negotiate greater connectivity, inclusion and change for students, parents and schools by working as a conduit between all three groups.”
“For parents, I’m hoping these initiatives create much more understanding of how the school system works, what supports are available to them and what role they can play in coaching their children to success.”
“For students, I am hoping the programs allow them to feel included, accepted and listened to. We want to create a sense of belonging at schools. The SCLOs’ work with teachers will help promote this.”
Osman has a strong awareness of the diverse factors that can cause African Victorian students and their parents to disengage from education. In coordinating the new VACAP programs, he sees how structural change could be possible for schools by breaking down barriers.
“If we can find a way of receiving feedback from families and students that schools think aren’t engaging, we can circulate it back to schools and work with them to foster welcoming and supportive environments for all”.
Osman says the VACAP education initiatives are an important step towards achieving these goals.
“I’m hoping the program will help to change the narrative – so we can focus a lot more on talking about African students who have achieved in education.”
Helping young African Victorians to shape their own future
When a student feels motivated at school, the result is someone like Osman. His drive to achieve came in part from having the right support to study as well as having someone who believed in him. For African Victorian students, a positive experience of primary and secondary education is a strong foundation to reach their potential as young people, and then as adults later down the track.
Osman says that young African Victorians have the power to shape their future - and though they’ll need to stay resilient, they don’t need to do it alone.
“You are part of a generation now that has an opportunity – so if you’re wanting a legacy, you have one before you, you just need to stay strong, stay resilient and reach out to people who understand your struggle.”
“They’ll help you stay on the journey, even though there’ll be ups and downs.”
Reviewed 25 June 2020