Venessa Sambai Ulek has made her mission in life to empower Iban girls, and bring social and economic change to her community in Sarawak. She knows how to achieve her goal, too: education.

“Education is the key to a better life,” she says with conviction. “I don’t only mean academic achievement but also in terms of building character and resilience.”

The eldest of three, Venessa says she always knew she wanted a better life, not just for her siblings but her community as well. She pushed herself to excel in school, determined to be the first in her family to graduate from university, to be an example for her sister and brother.

“When I was young, we lived in a longhouse in Sungai Bidut, Sibu. I had to get up at 5am, we had to cross the river, then take a long bus ride to get to school. It was tiring and I remember thinking I didn’t want my siblings to go through that,” the 29-year-old shares.

“Seeing how difficult it was, my father moved us from the longhouse to live across the river, to make going to school easier because he wanted more for us. So, I wanted to further my studies because I love learning and also because my family had high hopes that I could ‘do the ‘impossible’.”

Venessa and her family’s dream was fulfilled when she graduated from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak in 2013 with a degree in cognitive sciences. Upon graduating, she wanted to start a social enterprise to resolve her community’s issues, but she didn’t know how to realise her ambition.

“I wanted to use my degree to address current needs in society. I wanted to start my own social initiative, but I didn’t have the skills yet. The next best thing was to work with existing social enterprises in Malaysia and learn from them,” she says.

“So, when I found Teach For Malaysia (TFM), it seemed perfect. Not only could I link my degree in cognitive sciences to issues in the classroom, I could also gain entrepreneurship skills.”

TFM is an independent, nonprofit organisation that recruits young graduates to teach in high-need schools across Malaysia.

Vanessa: You learn to make better choices with education.

Teaching students to hope

Venessa taught for two years at a Sungai Bayor secondary school in Selama, Perak. It was her first time in Peninsular Malaysia and though she was excited, her mother was anxious.

“It was my first time away from home and my first time flying. My mother was worried and tried to persuade me to stay home. But she knew how stubborn I was, so my parents let me go.

“My experience as a teacher was amazing. The best part was my interaction with the students. Whether in class or out, I had the opportunity to teach them to dream.

“Through our conversations, they began to think of possibilities beyond their own town. It was very gratifying when I learned, after I left, that some of them had gone on to university.

“One of them even shared his dream of starting an orphanage to benefit the community. These are things that make me proud. Teachers have an influence, and education can change lives.”

Venessa’s TFM fellowship ended in 2015, but she didn’t leave the field. She joined Leap Ed, an education service provider that works with the Ministry of Education to implement best international practices in pedagogy and management systems within Malaysian schools.

Though she’s now back in Sarawak with her family, her work has her travelling all over Malaysia to facilitate different school projects in various states. In fact, Venessa is now a frequent flyer and takes advantage of the affordable flights that allow her to crisscross Malaysia with ease.

“I feel that I have embraced the tradition of the Iban tribe called bejalai (to travel and gain experience and knowledge) which used to be a man’s privilege. I have the opportunity to travel, gain knowledge, and experience from the people I have met and the places I have been to. And I’m still learning,” she says.

Empowering Iban girls

Venessa finds her work invigorating but she hasn’t lost sight of her goal. She is unwavering in her resolve to empower the girls and young women in her community.

“I have to because I know what empowerment can do. I have been empowered by my family which has shaped me and changed my life’s trajectory. As a teacher, I tried to empower my students and I’ve seen how empowerment had an impact on them.

“Next, I hope I can empower Iban girls to do more with their lives. I’m not saying they aren’t good enough but when a woman is empowered enough she can empower her family.

“My mother is a nurse and so I know how important it is for young mothers to be empowered,” shares Venessa.

For instance, an educated mother is empowered to make better choices for her children’s health, such as choosing to breastfeed rather than feed her baby condensed milk, she explains.

“Empowerment doesn’t necessarily mean getting women to make big changes. It also means helping them to live better and healthier,” says Venessa.

To this end, she is working to raise awareness about the need to empower young schoolgirls.

“I was very privileged to join the Global Girls Education Fellowship, an initiative from Teach For All where nominated ­fellows, alumni, and staff from Teach For Malaysia, Teach For India, Teach For Bangladesh, Teach For Nepal, Teach For Ghana, and Teach For Afghanistan discussed issues particularly on girls’ education, seeking to find solutions to the current problems faced by the respective countries.

“In Malaysia, one of our alumni is currently doing a research on gender equality in our classrooms and we hope to use her research to inform programmes for our young schoolgirls,” she says, full of hope.

AirAsia flies 95 times weekly from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. For more details, go to AirAsia and Mah Sing are the main partners of The Star’s WOW-Women do Wonders campaign, with SASA as co-sponsor.