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A leader, me? Haha!

16 April, 2020

Author: Ismat Khan, diagnostic radiography student, University of Cumbria

Ismat (right) with fellow #150Leaders (left) Alicia Burnett, student midwife; and Roda Abiib, a mental health nursing student.

The title of this reflection is the exact thought stream that ran through my brain the second I came across an email regarding the Student Leadership Programme.

I remember opening the email and glancing at it and thinking that could never be me. I can’t do that. A small-town hijabi be a leader?

But it was quickly followed by this one thought…just what if?

What if I could be a leader?

That ‘what if’ was the beginning of a journey I shall forever be indebted and grateful for. By the time I saw the application form, I had nine days left until the deadline.

I’m terrible at applications and I can’t count the number of times I have applied for job posts over and over again without being successful. I am now thankful for each of those times for building the resilience to rejection that enabled me to apply for this.

I thought, “Screw it, what’s the worst that’s going to happen besides not getting the opportunity?” 

I emailed Tom, my clinical tutor, the supporting form even before I had drafted answers to the questions. The rest of that week whilst on placement, every staff member became a victim to my constant questioning. I wrote and rewrote my answers every night. I was adamant on making sure it was perfect.

I didn’t think about the programme for the next month until 19 December, the day I got the email. I was scared and nervous, but excited. After reading congratulations in the subject line of the email, it felt so good!

For about the first 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds of my heart racing and an adrenaline rush. Fifteen seconds of being at the top of the pile of my accomplishments. I was to be one of the 50 #150Leaders out of the hundreds of applicants!

I clicked on the email and read it over, and over and over. Then came the 16th second: the “Oh, shoot” moment.

They chose me?

The self-doubt is inevitable. I questioned whether I would be able to fulfil the role, or if I would be able to honour the opportunity. It’s human to have anxiety. It’s healthy. But you must fight that fear with self-belief and courage. Challenge those thoughts with: what if I exceed the role?

Not knowing the possibilities is scary but also exhilarating. Sometimes we do not feel special or different. Sometimes we feel like we don’t have anything important to say. But that’s not true. Regardless of who you are, we all have a voice. Yes, some voices get heard louder than others, but it shouldn’t stop you from raising yours.

One of the questions on the application form asked ‘What do you expect to gain from being on the programme?’ This was a particularly difficult question for me, as I had never gone into a programme with specified goals.

To be honest, at first I just wanted to enter it with an open mind to all opportunities, but after taking this question into careful consideration, I answered: “I believe the programme will provide a unique experience to be exposed to a range of new opportunities and people to gain a wider perspective on the NHS.

“I believe it will allow me to network with other healthcare students and understand their role within the NHS. Thus, allowing me to widen my perspective and develop my emotional and self-awareness.

“I hope to learn what a role in leadership entails and understand how as a student I can have a role in leadership. Within the NHS, I believe it is important to not have isolated medical teams, and instead, encourage multi-disciplinary teams to improve work-life and patient treatment. I expect to gain confidence and empowerment to encourage integration between healthcare professionals.”

After submitting, I had deleted my drafts due to being anxious and had forgotten about the goals I had set. Once on the programme I asked to see a copy of my application. I was surprised and almost shocked to realise that most of the goals I had set out to achieve had been accomplished within the two days of the welcome residential.

The two days were life changing and I don’t use that phrase lightly. The mere 48 hours turned my entire perspective on the NHS and healthcare system upside down, or I should say the right way up?

I saw this optimistic new outlook to healthcare and was made aware of the vast scale. Not only do I have a better idea of how our healthcare system runs and who is involved, but gained an insight to the many other AHP roles.

The most crucial aspect of the residential was networking. It was one of the main goals that I had set out to achieve. I wanted to interact with people who were passionate and had a determined mindset, but I never thought I would find where I belong.

I found my tribe of people despite being from completely different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and even age. Everyone in that room was incredibly passionate about what they do and working within the NHS.

Some of the stories across the dinner table humbled me. These people were selflessly dedicated. The extra hours of care and precision they put into their work was so admirable, despite hardly ever receiving recognition. It was something that I could relate to so well. I had worked extremely hard for my seat at that table and, amongst them, it felt deserved.

Between every workshop or session, we were asked to switch tables and sit next to someone new. In any other setting I would have felt completely uncomfortable but sitting there I was excited to meet the next person and hear all about their profession and experience. I felt comfortable presenting my ideas, discussing difficult topics, pulling together tasks, planning a whole event in 30 minutes and then pitching to a Dragon’s Den style panel.

I am not one of those people who are extroverted and comfortable in a crowded environment, especially in one filled with intellectual people. But I felt comfortable because I felt respected, genuinely seen and heard.

Despite my skin colour, my hijab, my age or the fact that I was the only diagnostic radiography student, I felt valued. I did not know I was missing that level of mutual understanding and recognition until that day.

That night I ended up staying up very late and only getting a maximum of three hours of sleep after meeting a fellow hijabi, who is a student mental-health nurse. We talked all night about each other’s professions and life experiences that led to us to #150Leaders, and it felt like I was catching up with an old friend. The privilege of attending those two days was overwhelming.

We ended on a high with a group of us ended up travelling home together. Although it was bittersweet with the looming Covid-19 pandemic, we made the most of the journey; from getting lost between tube stations to sprinting to catch our train from Euston station.

Despite the distance, it hasn’t kept any of us apart. The multiple #150Leaders group chats have been filled with positivity. Everyone shares incredible parts of their lives, asks questions and provides advice, and especially during these hard times, it is a silver lining to have such a great support system at our fingertips.

To the say the least, the love and support did not stop when we walked out of the venue’s doors. It was just the start of many incredible friendships and journeys.

Ismat’s blog was first published on the Student Leadership website.

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