Dr Florence Barbara Awino: Crescent Champions Club Mentor
When we ask Florence what attracted her to mentoring, she tells us tells us something we have often heard while speaking to mentors from the Crescent Champions Club; namely, that she had a mentor when she was younger whose encouragement and support essentially changed the trajectory of her life: from a math-phobic student to an environmental research scientist.
“While I was growing up, I had a phobia of maths- and science-related subjects, for two reasons: one, I had no role model in my family who had studied those subjects; and two, because of the community perception, held in our minds and often repeated, that girl-children didn’t have the intellectual potential to do these hard subjects. That seed sown in our young minds was so deep that it stunted our faith, belief, and confidence to never have the courage to face those hard situations. My “phobia story” of mathematics may be like that of many others out there. Nevertheless, over time, the power of mentorship reversed that mindset in me. It changed my attitude to those subjects, from full-blown math-phobia to becoming the scientist I am today.”
“It was a teacher who came into my life in year nine. Without even hearing my story, he identified my potential based on what he saw in class. With his encouragement and support, I was able to overcome my fear of maths, and so he became my role model. With that, I learnt a great life lesson and I feel I have a debt to pay. I have this feeling that I need to give back, to help others realise their own potential so that they can work through all the challenges and become better versions of themselves.”
“We all have fears. At every point in life, there is something that you fear, or something you feel you cannot be better at. Finding someone in a vulnerable position or where they feel they have a weak point and then supporting them through that challenge until they are able to stand on their own and handle whatever it was they were afraid of, that really interests me.”
Florence arrived in Canberra from Uganda in 2015 to pursue her research work, which focuses on environmental issues including waste management, urban agriculture, climate change, and environmental sustainability. She is also passionate about raising awareness on issues concerning girls, women, and environmental pollution. She says she admires the climate activists pushing those in power for more evidence-based and decisive actions.
“As humans, we live and depend on the environment for our livelihood. We drink water, we farm and construct on soil, and we breath air. So, protecting these systems is very important; protecting what we have and making sure we don’t destroy the planet for our future generations is crucial if we are to promote sustainable development.
“My research is in contaminated environments, and how that can impact on the safety of the food that we eat. I use my research ideas to create awareness and talk to people on how to manage our activities, including waste generation and disposal to protect the environment. As I am talking to you now, I’m kind of putting the information out there.”
Florence also works as an academic writer, and it was a short-term consultancy to review academic literature on refugee student challenges that initially piqued her interest in mentoring refugees and led her to volunteer with the Crescent Champions Club.
“I was reviewing literature to help identify refugee student needs in the Australian academic system and to look for strategies that could help inform decisions. This enabled me to get to know the story of refugee students; what they go through, and why, despite giving them very good academic resources and facilities, they still have challenges along their academic path.”
“I also volunteer with Frontiers Journal, as a science mentor to empower and guide young minds aged 8-15 years, on how to review research articles written by senior researchers. I’ve not only worked with refugees, but also with women and children in vulnerable and disadvantaged settings including domestic violence situations. In all situations, and despite the backgrounds that I have mentioned, what I have discovered is that when these people discover their potentials and passions, they excel.”
As far as diversity is concerned, she is encouraged by the direction Australia is currently pursuing. She believes that awareness-raising efforts and a growing number of opportunities bode well for her mentees and for young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in general. “I believe the young are willing to grab any opportunity that comes along. I think they are more open-minded than before.”
However, she also feels today’s youth face significant risks. For one thing, she questions how constant exposure to smartphones and other digital technologies might create a handicap for them when it comes to effective physical (human-to-human) communication, forming strong social bonds with friends and family, relationships, and prioritising mental health.
“When we communicate, we convey ideas, and we build human bonds for proper interaction. When we communicate, we reduce the problems between us. We talk it out, and that addresses our mental health status.”
This, Florence feels, is part of what makes mentorships so valuable. It reaches people at an age where they are developing the skills, outlook, and attitudes that they will use to navigate all the challenges they face later in life.
“Sometimes it is just helping them to get to know or identify their hidden potentials and passions. The moment they discover that, they excel. It’s like their mindset is not fixed but grows when they are supported, guided, and mentored. One just needs to listen to their stories, identify their needs, and help them spot their potentials and/ passion. We can all make a difference.”