As an undergraduate computing student in Mubai, India, Sagarika Raje was one of only a handful of women in lecture halls filled with men. And at times she suspected her professors favoured the male students.
“It did get quite awkward at times,” she said. “The other girls in my class were really shy and quiet. I’m not that kind of a person, but if that’s how my environment is, I might just pull myself back a little as well.”
But after a few weeks of keeping to herself and staying quiet during classes, she made a commitment to herself.
“I decided to let people know that I am very serious about my career. I am serious about what I’m studying,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Once they recognise that spark in me, people will end up taking me seriously’.”
Down Under dreaming
It was during that same year, 2017, that Raje began looking at The Australian National University (ANU) for postgraduate study.
Of her friends and classmates who were seeking graduate study abroad, the United States and Canada were the most popular destinations. Australia wasn’t even on the radar.
But Raje had heard from a cousin living in Canberra that Australia has a “more peaceful way of life” compared to India’s second most populous city. ANU was known to foster diverse, dynamic, and welcoming communities. And what intrigued her most was the networking and career opportunities available at the ANU School of Computing.
Raje prepared applications for several universities, all of them abroad but only one in Australia.
“If I get into ANU, I’m going,” she told herself.
But would she get in? Raje privately worried that she “wouldn’t be considered academically qualified” for Australia’s top ranked university, consistently ranked among the top 30 in the world.
“I worked hard for four years, making sure my grades were up there,” she said.
By the time Raje learned that the ANU Chancellor’s International Scholarship has a specific category for students from India, her academic scores were high enough that she thought she might have a chance.
“I was amazed to see ANU grants 50 per cent scholarships, and I made it my goal at once,” she said.
It was in February 2021, with Raje’s final semester of her undergraduate degree underway, that an email from ANU popped up in her inbox. She had been accepted. But there was no mention of the Chancellor’s scholarship.
Two weeks later, a second email arrived.
“My family and I were overjoyed, and there were no dry eyes in our home,” she said. “It was the best highlight of my life.”
Financially a 50 per cent scholarship was “huge, of course”, but the true significance of the award was the confidence boost it provided.
“After years of fearing that, you know, ‘What if I’m not enough for this university?’, to then receive a merit-based scholarship just made me feel like I do belong here. They have seen me, they’ve recognised me. And it’s the most wonderful feeling I could describe.”
Finding a home far from home
Raje arrived in Canberra in July 2021. Her first impression? Cold! Having swapped hemispheres, she’d also swapped summer for winter.
“Going from 30 degrees to 3 was really difficult,” she said, adding that Mumbai has hot weather year-round.< p>
After settling into her on-campus accommodation, she attended an ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics orientation event. There, she met several other students who had also come from India.
“That’s where I made my first group of friends and they’ve stuck with me ever since. They’re such good people,” she said.
When Raje fell sick a few weeks later, it was the first time in her life that she had dealt with illness without the support of her family. But her professors were understanding, and her new friends were heroic, cooking meals for her and plying her with familiar medicines brought from India.
“That’s when I kind of knew, hey, I’m not alone. I got this.”
Raje joined a student organisation called Fifty/50, which aims to bring about an even balance between men and women in STEM by recruiting more women to study at ANU and supporting those who are already here.
The gender ratio in Raje’s courses at ANU is around 60/40, men to women.
“At 60/40, you don’t really notice or think about it,” she said.
Raje has enjoyed the intercultural comradery that Fifty/50 affords. She hopes to be a role model for young women who might struggle with self-doubt as she had not long ago.
While Raje has experienced instances of gender bias throughout her life, she has no regrets when reflecting back on the path she has followed. She enjoys sharing her personal experiences in one-on-one conversations and mentoring others where they can be a source of comfort or guidance.
“Without my mentors I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said.
“I have dreamt of coming to ANU since 2017, and it has exceeded my expectations. Not one moment goes by when I am not grateful for being here,” Raje said.
Raje speaks with wonder about the natural beauty of the lakeside campus in Canberra and its mountain surroundings. In 20 minutes, she can walk to the heart of the city, where she and many of her friends have found part-time jobs.
In their free time, the friend group enjoys cooking for each other, hiking, taking walks around the lake, and attending festivals and other cultural events.
“We’re still exploring, still discovering,” she said.
During her first semester in the Master of Computing program, Raje enjoyed learning new programming languages and revisiting others. She has enjoyed diving into advanced mathematics, which underpins machine learning algorithms.
“I’d already studied a specialisation, which is data science, but I realised that I might have narrowed my options down a bit too early,” Raje said, explaining that the university system in India pushes undergraduates to specialise from the get-go.
“Now, I feel I’d like to explore a wider umbrella as well, which is why I chose computer science, and not machine learning or data science for my masters.”
Raje expressed deep appreciation for the accessibility of her professors and her tutors, mentioning Dr Guiseppe Barca in particular.
“He was very patient with each student and explained all concepts thoroughly. I enjoyed his lectures and hope to learn more from him,” Raje said.