Every year we receive inspiring and outstanding applications from young LGBTIQ+ Australians all around the country who want to be part of The Pinnacle Foundation scholarship program. We constantly strive to secure the resources we need to award scholarships, carefully matched mentors, and the welcome embrace of the Pinnacle family to as many young LGBTIQ+ Australians in need as we can. Every scholar we support has the potential to be a leader in their field and a champion for the LGBTIQ+ community. With our support, we empower young LGBTIQ+ Australians to live their dreams and reclaim their path.
One of our new scholars in 2021 is Odette Maher, a trans woman who is studying Engineering at Monash University. Odette shares with us her inspiring story:
Tell us a little about your journey and how you became involved with The Pinnacle Foundation.
I was pretty ignorant about sexuality for a very long time. Where I come from sexuality wasn’t something that was ever talked about, and when it was talked about, gay people were the butt of jokes and trans people didn’t exist, or if they did exist, it was The Rocky Horror Show, or Pricilla Queen of the Desert, or something like that.
I first attended a high school that wasn’t accepting of differences in any way. A lot of my peers faced financial difficulties and the school was under-funded and I faced bullying during my time there. I would say sexuality wasn’t a huge part of my life until I was in Year 9, which is when I met my first openly queer role model who was my lovely English teacher. She was such an incredible person and such a role model to me, especially since throughout my life I had been told that gay people were weird, flamboyant and all the really disgusting stereotypes that you hear. To be able to have this role model, somebody who I could speak to, it gave me the freedom to express myself more freely and to question myself about some things that I had supressed for a very long time.
I didn’t know what transgender meant until Year 10. For the longest time, and it sounds so silly in hindsight, but I just thought that every guy hated being a guy. I thought that this feeling was normal and that every guy thought, “I just got the bad deal, but I’ll just make do with what I’ve got.” It wasn’t until I discovered what being transgender meant that I gave myself the freedom to start exploring my identity. It wasn’t until I moved to my new school at the time, which was John Monash Science School, a progressive inner-city school and an environment that fostered a lot of care, that I really felt that I could be safe to confront my gender and work through some of the feelings that I had suppressed. I would also say that around that time, when I moved to John Monash, was when being queer was more normal and it wasn’t something that was a topic of conversation. It didn’t feel like sexuality and gender was something that had to be a thing to disclose or feel scared about, and that was when I was comfortable to begin my transition and come out as transgender. This was probably around Year 12, so again, a little bit late there, as I began questioning myself probably around Year 10. I would say that’s probably the largest part of my journey in terms of personal confrontation and I discovered The Pinnacle Foundation in Year 12 as well. I was told by my Career Counsellor to go and think about things that are unique to me and then look at scholarships that are related to that, so I thought, “I’ll go and look for scholarships for transgender students” and The Pinnacle Foundation came up. For a little while I didn’t even consider applying because I thought, “I haven’t got it that bad. I am not being bullied any more. I have a pretty supportive family.” It did actually take me a little while to even consider applying, but I am so I glad I did because I am now a scholar and have this amazing connection to this wonderful family and my mentor as well who is incredible.
What have you gained from being part of the Pinnacle program so far?
So far, the biggest thing I have gained from being a scholar is the sense of family. Even in the induction events and some of the talks about storytelling and queer history, it’s really nice to be in a group of peers where I don’t feel I have to tone down my queerness. I have the huge privilege of being a very “acceptable” trans person in that I mostly pass to most people. I don’t hide my identity, but I don’t talk about my identity unless it comes up, which makes me an easy-to-adjust kind of person. It’s really nice to have The Pinnacle Foundation and not feel like I have to tone myself down so that I don’t get as many comments, or there are no rumours started about me, or I don’t get rejected from a job because I’ve said too much about my identity.
What has your experience with your mentor been like?
Meeting my mentor, who is a BHP engineer, has been so great. It has been really fantastic catching up with her and learning about her experience. I think a lot of her experience applies to me as well, so it’s been great to have that back up and feel like if things get too out of control, I can just text her and she’ll have my back. I can’t imagine that there are too many openly queer female engineers, so being matched with her has been so wonderful and the matching process so precise. I appreciated that the earlier meetings were facilitated by Pinnacle because it took the stress out of taking the first step and the challenge of finding a schedule that worked for both of us. I feel like our personalities really clicked and I feel really comfortable around her. It has definitely been an encouraging experience.
What are you hoping to achieve as a Pinnacle scholar?
I found already that as I have received the funds so much of my time has been freed up. I don’t have to worry about, “How am I going to pay my $300 student services fee? I am going to have to get a job on the weekend. I am going to have to take out a loan to be able to afford all the uni expenses.” The relief of not having to worry about finances is incredible and it gives me so much more time to focus on my studies and helping other people and volunteering. For example, recently I have been able to apply for some positions at my old school to be able to teach young women in STEM and engineering and really rev them up to get involved in what is a male-dominated industry. Without Pinnacle I wouldn’t be able to do this, because I would need to work during that time as I need to pay for things somehow. Also, the networking I do with Pinnacle is such a good opportunity as I get to interact with people that I never would have been able to meet. It is great knowing my mentor is a connection into a professional environment, that I can draw upon when I am working with STEM students if they have questions such as, “What’s it like being a woman in STEM?” I can’t answer that right now, but I can draw on my mentor’s experience or I can access support from the wider Pinnacle family. My ultimate goal is to work towards creating a place where everyone can have access to a safe environment where people can feel accepted for who they are.
I am open in my identity and I tell others that I am a safe person to talk to because that’s something that I really missed when I was younger. I didn’t have that safe person to talk to and I didn’t feel comfortable, even in private, to consider my own identity, so that’s something that I try to embody as much as I can. Also, through my actions by going back to my old school and teaching young women in STEM, I’d like to bring in sustainability and humanitarian concepts, looking at the importance of diversity and identifying micro-aggressions and how we can contribute to a healthy and safe environment working towards a more inclusive world.
What advice would you give to a young person who is thinking about applying for the Pinnacle Foundation scholarship program?
Give it a go. I wouldn’t be here sharing my story if I hadn’t given it a go. In the grand scheme of things, the most I had to lose was 30 minutes of my time filling in the application form. What I had to gain was an incredible family and Pinnacle’s support through my education and a mentor connection and so much more than that. I would say, take it as an opportunity to investigate your past and investigate your queerness because it wasn’t until I was writing my application that I thought, maybe I might be a good fit for this, and even though I am not being bullied now, being bullied has had a big impact on my past and on my personality as it stands now. Take it as an opportunity to explore yourself and be vulnerable – only good things can come from it. We invite you to help us provide scholarships to outstanding LGBTIQ+ young Australians like Odette. Please visit our donations page: https://thepinnaclefoundation.org/donate/donate-now/.