Sonia Singh has literally had a second chance in life. It is perhaps the reason why she unleashes amazing energy to her role as a teacher, actor and social worker.
In 2002, Sonia Singh was off to start a coveted and challenging role at the Guru Jambheshwar University, Hisar, in Haryana. A university topper with two Master’s degree under her belt, life was looking up. On day one of her first job, she was driving her scooter Bajaj Legend, when two km short of her destination she stopped to offer a ride to a friend. While waiting for her friend, Sonia took off her helmet in an impulse and drove on. What followed next would change the course of her life.
A speeding truck hit the girls’ scooter from behind. Sonia and her friend suffered grievous injuries but it was Sonia who bore the maximum impact. With a head injury and 17 fractures in her body, Sonia was in coma for 14 days. “When I came out of the coma, I had lost my memory,” she says. It took her one and half years to recover.
“I lost everything in that accident,” she recalls, adding, “After six months I had to resign from my job. I was given six months but my recovery was not to the point where I could get up so doctors did not give the all clear certificate. The 17 fractures took months to heal. My health was down.”
But more than this, the trauma of coma was not easy to recover from. The only people she recognised initially were her father and her doctor at the hospital. “I forgot how to write. I didn’t get frustrated at that point because I didn’t remember anything, didn’t remember the fact that I had this repository of knowledge etc. I was not in a situation to remember what I lost.”
Sonia’s supportive parents worked hard on her recovery. Her father, a police officer, took six months off from his busy job to look after her. “He started me on Ayurvedic, Homeopathic and all the herbal remedies for about 10 months. It worked.”
But it was the gift of yoga from her doting father that Sonia cherishes today most of all. “Each day was a challenge. My father would say ‘today we are going to take one step on the stairs’ – that was like a success to me. The next day he would say ‘today the target is two steps’. That’s how I learnt to walk again.”
Then one day, her young neighbour who was studying in Year 10 confided in her having trouble with understanding chemistry. Sonia, who held a double Master’s degree in chemistry promptly offered to help. She found out it was basic chemistry and the knowledge just came flushing back. “That day my father cried. He said it was a proud moment in his life when he saw me regain some of my memory. That was the first time he felt that I didn’t lose anything.”
Sonia explains that losing memory and recovering is like a muddy water. “When you throw something into it, there is diffusion. You need time and the force of gravity for the muddiness to settle down. You can’t give stress. Of course, I couldn’t feel the mental stress at that time. My only stress was the fact that I couldn’t walk. I forgot who I am, where life was coming from, I forgot that I had a double Master’s degree in Chemistry, I forgot that my research projects was one of the university’s major projects. Nothing came to mind… I can still remember nothing about my hospital stay except the doctor and the nurse who gave me painful injections. Rest is what people or my parents tell me,” she laughs.
But in her journey of recovery Sonia discovered an energy that is today her reservoir. Fresh with that energy she came to Australia in 2006 to start a new life. At La Trobe University, she completed her third Master’s degree in Education. Today as head of Al Siraat College, Epping, she has a career that commits herself to changing and reforming lives. But more than that, she has ascended as an active member of the Indian community dabbling in social work in her free time, pursuing the arts and working round the clock. “Wherever I am I live for the moment.”
Coming to Australia was a challenge, she admits. “I had to make myself a person who is worth serving the society.” Literally starting from scratch, Sonia’s first job was as sandwich maker and kitchen hand in Northland Shopping Centre. “I felt very frustrated to be honest. Here I was with a double degree having qualified the top eligibility test of UGC to become a lecturer anywhere in India. So after three months into that job, I woke up saying I have to do something better.”
She decided to follow her passion in education and advertised for students who wanted help in chemistry. “And that’s how my tutoring started for B-pharm students and graduate students from La Trobe.” Alongside she completed her Master’s in Education.
While at university she revived her love for theatre, something she was actively involved when she was in India. As a key player in youth festivals winning prizes for singing, dancing and acting, she applied the same level of earnestness in her new environment. “Nukad or street plays are very close to my heart. At college in India we did some social plays on eve teasing etc., and on raising awareness. It was highly appreciated.” So she got involved in cultural activities at La Trobe University and slowly started filling the gaps in her life.
“When I started looking at people here, despite being a developed country, I realised people were still disadvantaged in the sense that some were not aware of their rights, some had lost the motivation to do something. There is more to human life; it’s just not bread butter, clothes or having a house. Life is more than that. I realised that when I was recovering from the accident and told myself that I will cater for this spiritual need as well. So the passion grew with time with more people getting into my circle,” reflects Sonia, who created a group as an outlet to find her creativity again.
After completing her Master’s in Education at La Trobe, Sonia started working as a research assistant in a casual position. Later she applied for teaching jobs once she got her teaching licence. Her first job as a teacher was at the Independent Islamic College in Broad Meadows, considered one of the toughest areas in terms of the demography of students who come from low socio economic status.
“It was definitely a challenge for me, the position I was offered was of a biology teacher. I did hardly a week of it when I told my principal that my interest was in chemistry and he asked me to coordinate between biology and chemistry classes. So from a part-time biology teacher I became a full-time chemistry teaching and given VCE as well. Eventually I was the senior school coordinator as a senior chemistry teacher. My soul was looking for that and it was time to shine again. I did that for five and half years before I applied for head of college at Al Siraat College, Epping.
“When I apply for these jobs, I leave it to the universal energies to guide me. I think everyone is guided. I just choose the path that clicks to my heart,” she reflects. In charge of students from prep to Year 12, it is a very demanding role but one that she loves. “The position is close to my heart, it is about taking care of the well-being of all the students. I take care of learning support, counselling, and oversee all the projects to make sure that student leadership is there.”
Sonia has been credited for initiating the student leadership project and recently established a well-being centre in the college. “It’s all about the services you can think of that a student is availing other than the classroom. That involves spiritual and learning support, counselling, motivational and leadership classes to create human beings who are not mechanical beings but good functioning citizens with heart and soul.”
The well-being centre will be inaugurated on November 18 and it will be the first one in any of the Islamic colleges in Victoria. “It’s a full house. I take care of staff well being too. They come and talk about their problems and fortunately they trust me. I do not give them solutions, sometimes I hear their problems and sometimes they get the solutions themselves. Sometimes if I am in a capacity to guide them, I do that,” she modestly admits.
With 39 nationalities and 35 official languages, the school has strength of 530 students. “If a student is not achieving 100 percent it becomes my job to make sure that we put the strategy into place. I instruct my learning support team to make sure that we discuss each and every case individually. I know the needs of each and every student. I know which student has, say, a hospital appointment, which speech pathologist or counsellor they are seeing. I have four full-time learning support team. We also have a visiting psychologist for cognitive assessment.”
Her greatest pleasure is seeing her students’ progress. “I love my job, I love all my kids. You are changing lives every day. It is very demanding. No doubt there is a mental and physical exertion but when you see the result, it doesn’t matter how many hours you are spending; it is rewarding. I can’t find a single day when I can finish my work on time.”
There is more to Sonia than meets the eye. Her creative pursuits have taken new heights. Last year she worked in a short film Umeed based on dowry. This year she has finished working in ‘The Hidden Truth’, a long feature film on domestic violence. It will be released soon. Sonia’s interest and devotion to acting is in a way her allegiance to the stage which began when she was in India dabbling in nukaad or street plays to raise awareness on social issues. “I do all the things related to women empowerment because being a female this is close to my heart. A woman can offer a lot through her sacrifice, compassion and love and that is inbuilt as part of our genetic make-up.”
Much of the inspiration for all that she is doing comes from her parents, particularly her father who has been the constant driving force in her life. For instance when she won the Miss Australia India first runners-up title in 2013 and was asked to go represent Australia in the US, all her father told her was, “Go and live your life. It’s your second chance and make the most of it”.
And it’s the reason too why she takes “every single day, the 24 hours granted to me to make a difference in my life or somebody else’s life”. In her spare time, Sonia involves herself in a lot of voluntary social work. From teaching Somalian children to book readings at hospitals, to working with Indian women community groups on domestic violence, her hands are full. “This is again catering for my spiritual needs,” she says but prefers not to call attention to her ‘small contribution’.
Life has different ways of showing the right path. Sonia, who was a topper in Year 10, a district topper in Year 12 and a university topper had a distinguished academic record, wanted to become a doctor. But that chance was thwarted by a mere point. “My marks were 99.6 percent and the cut off was 99.7 per cent,” she rues. But in a way that has led her to the zenith of her career as she is today doing what she loves – teaching and looking after hundreds of children.
With her hectic work schedule, her voluntary work and creative pursuits, Sonia finds yoga and meditation her spiritual oasis. “The spiritual side has come out more after the accident, definitely. During my self-realizing that comes in peace and quiet moments, I feel I have been stopped by that super power to tell me ‘your place is here where these kids are waiting’.”
It is obvious that her myriad roles have given Sonia the mental clarity about who she is. “I am a more much refined human being,” she says. But these achievements are materialistic and are not the denominator for success, she feels. “If I can be more equipped materialistically to serve people better that’s where I would like to see myself. There are a lot of activities that I am into despite the lack of time or money – monetary gains is not my end goal.” But everything that she has an interest in has come together. Rest assured, when she looks back on life, Sonia can feel satisfied and privileged that she has touched people and affected them in a positive way!
By Indira Laisram