Many regular visitors to the Aidha campus will have seen the petite lady in a hijab shyly greeting and helping students and volunteers on Sundays.
But not so long ago, Tri Utami could barely look anyone in the eye when they spoke to her. She was that shy.
“Last time, I couldn’t even talk like this, person to person, looking straight at the eyes. I would look down. When I had to talk in front of people, I had no confidence at all, because I would feel that (since) I only graduated from high school, my English was just simple English.”
It was this crippling shyness that compelled her to join Aidha.
“I had… no confidence, didn’t have friends…after two years of working in Singapore, I had no savings. Nothing was changing for me. That made me want to learn and look for courses that I can take while working too. I met an Aidha student who introduced me to Aidha and encouraged me to enrol.”
Tri discussed enrolling at Aidha with her employer who was very supportive that he even paid for half of her tuition fees. This was back in 2009.
Back then, the Communication session was the most torturous class for Tri. “Whenever we did a speech in front
of the class, we were given time to write it down and practice,” Tri recalled. “However, it would take me longer to speak in front of people. And the longer it took me, the more I forgot everything… I just totally turned blank and froze.”
But that challenge also turned out to be her best learning experience.
“My mentor asked me who was the person who made me feel small. I said, men.”
Tri’s mentor, who happened to be male, pointed this fact out to her.
Then he taught me something I will never forget. He said, ‘Don’t look at my eyes. Look at my forehead or my nose.’”
That was a turning point in Tri’s public speaking efforts. She started looking at her audience’s forehead or nose and then slowly trained herself till she could make eye contact with whomever she was speaking with.
Aside from the blossoming self-confidence, Tri says the saving and budgeting habits she learned from the Compass Club have also improved her life and her relationship with her family.
“What I learned in Aidha, like budgeting and planning, managing money and setting a financial goal, I shared with my family. My family was bankrupt after I had just graduated from high school. Everything was gone. We only had the land together with the house.”
This desperate financial situation forced Tri to forego any plans of attending university even though she already had a partial scholarship. “My sister and I decided to go abroad to work and help our family pay off our debts.”
Her initial plan of only staying for 2 years, the length of a standard employment contract, extended into another renewal. Now, eight years since she first landed in Singapore to work as a domestic helper, Tri declares she is ready to go home.
“Two months ago, I decided no, I’m going home. This is the right time for me to stop.”
Her plan is to open up a reading centre in her hometown in Lampung. South Sumatra. “I plan to open a library that’s more like a reading centre. But that’s just the first step. My real dream is to open a learning centre… I want to open a non-profit school just like Aidha. Aidha has really inspired me.”
Tri’s aim is to help the students of her learning centre learn better English. “If you can speak English, there’s more opportunity.”
Tri has one message for her fellow domestic helpers:
“Go! Study and learn. Most people say, ‘I don’t need to learn anymore because I’m old … I have so many problems… I don’t want to spend money for this because my family needs the money more.’…That’s even more reason to study! Actually it’s really wasteful being here just working.”
After graduating, Tri stayed on as a student Trainee who helps run the campus operations on Sundays. “I’m
happier now compared to before when I always looked down on myself… when I had no confidence. Now I do.” She says her recent experience as deputy campus manager was a very big help. “That really helped me to practice my communication and socialisation skills because I meet so many different kinds of people at Aidha. That’s what I’m proud of the most –working together with other people and becoming more flexible and comfortable around others.”
And as someone who dreams of establishing the Javanese chapter of Aidha, these are traits that will certainly serve her well.
– by Ting Claravall, with contributions from Isabel Servando
Editor’s Note: Tri went back home to Sumatra in late May 2015. She plans to start her reading centre after Hari Raya in August. She is still in need of books. If you would like to help out her start-up learning centre by donating your old schoolbooks, do get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.