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Zambian migrant embracing opportunities in the Waikato

Lushomo Thebe remembers arriving at Auckland Airport in 2010. She’d just flown in from Zambia with her mother and younger twin sisters to start a new life in Hamilton.

What nine-year-old Lushomo couldn’t imagine then was that she’d be standing in Queen St in Auckland in 2021 with a suitcase taking a selfie to send to her mum.

But this time the suitcase wouldn’t contain her clothes and sentimental trinkets. Instead, it would contain paperwork and equipment Lushomo would need for her internship at one of New Zealand’s leading law firms, Chapman Tripp. “That moment was quite surreal, but also a very meaningful reminder about what life is like for an immigrant… packing up a small part of your life into a suitcase,” said Lushomo.

Now almost 21, Lushomo was head girl at Sacred Heart Girls’ College in 2018 and the first head girl of African descent at the school. But that wasn’t her only leadership role in the school. She participated in many parts of school life, including the Student Council, regularly giving back to her school and wider community along the way.

And she’s continuing that life of servant leadership at Waikato University where she’s studying towards a conjoint Bachelor of Law with Honours and Bachelor of Business majoring in finance.

This year Lushomo is the Waikato Student Union vice-president and in that capacity she chairs Te Pou Whirinaki (The Student Advisory Council). She is also on various committees such as the Academic Board, Student Services Governance Committee, and the Special Consideration Committee.

Talking with Lushomo you get the distinct impression she’s a busy, but organised young woman. And she doesn’t say yes to everything; rather, she’s careful about what commitments she takes on.

“Everything I do comes back to my why and once you figure out your why, it makes it so much easier. I’m very selective about organisations I choose to work with because if the people in those places and the organisation itself doesn’t align with my values I don’t want to invest my time.”

Lushomo figured out her why early on – her family. “Coming from a Zambian home, you’re part of this huge ‘village’ or community. There’s a concept there… ‘I am because we are’.

Basically, it means that you have this whole supportive village behind you – you are never doing something on your own. You never feel overwhelmed because of all the love and support you have.”

That love and support has been provided in spades by Lushomo’s parents and her sisters, Chipego and Silika who now attend Sacred Heart too. “I made the decision to stay living at home when I went to uni… you can’t be working hard for the family you don’t see. And I think staying home has been one of the biggest keys to success.

Coming home to home cooked meals after long days, especially at the end of the semester when you’re really tired… or my sisters saying they’ve done the dishes because they know I have assignments to go and work on. That love and support means everything to me.”

But it’s also what Lushomo gives back too. She helps a lot at home, cooking for large, joyful gatherings the family regularly hosts at their Whatawhata home where there’s lots of food, laughter, singing and dancing.

And driving her sisters to school most mornings, “with all of us singing Beyonce really loudly as we go”. And while Lushomo has a full diary, she knows that taking care of herself is important so you can give the best of yourself. “I make time to work out at CrossFit in the morning.

Sometimes I want to change the world, and other times I just need to rest!” she laughs. But then, Lushomo turns serious. She begins talking about leadership and changing the world.

And when she does, she doesn’t talk about household names. “The greatest leaders in my life…those who’ve inspired me the most… they are my mum, my grandmas.

They have lived a very simple life, but they’ve made a difference to the people around them.

In every person you meet you have the ability to inspire them to be a better person. I’m a strong believer in authenticity – there is so much power in that.” Lushomo recounts stories of her parents making the enormous decision to move their young family to an unfamiliar country.

Of her father spending three years in New Zealand studying while her mother raised the three girls back in Zambia. Of her grandmother making huge meals for her scores of grandchildren and regaling them with stories as the children sat around her in a huge circle.

And while Lushomo says she doesn’t yet know how she wants to change the world, she’s essentially already having an impact.

“As a first-generation immigrant, there have been many times when I haven’t seen anyone who looks or sounds like me in places that I’ve wanted to go into.

That’s a huge barrier when you don’t see anyone who looks like you… it makes a space feel inaccessible… that there won’t be anyone who understands you or your culture.”

Indeed, Lushomo was bullied for the first couple of years at school in New Zealand because of the way she looked and sounded.

Then she realised that’s what makes her unique and she found power in sharing her story.

Now she mentors “indigenous women, women of colour” at university and encourages them to share their stories too. “For so long I was scared to share my story, but your story is what makes you who you are.

Be authentic; you never know where it will lead you. I love empowering other women to share their stories. That’s one of my drivers.”

Another driver for Lushomo is breaking down the barriers around giving rangatahi (youth) a voice. “I can be talking to a partner at a law firm or a chair of a board and it’s as if they’re thinking ‘what do you know?’.

I recognise that I still have a lot to learn, but I do have something to share and contribute. “In Zambia, we place leaders and elders on a pedestal.

We are very respectful of them – what they say goes. I want to challenge certain leadership styles, but it’s hard because of how I’ve been raised. But I am trying to challenge the status quo.”

One such way Lushomo is doing that is as the coordinator of the United Nations Youth NZ’s Aotearoa Youth Declaration Hamilton Regional Hui, which is designed to make sure youth voices are heard in youth issues and when assessing various policies.

“The Hui recognises issues and we’re helping come up with tangible solutions, from tikanga to climate change. It’s about giving rangatahi the power to contribute.”

While Lushomo isn’t yet certain about what type of job she’d like once she graduates, she says international work is somewhere she can see herself.

She talks excitedly about the World Trade Organization’s appointment of the first female and first African director-general earlier this year, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

“I was thinking about working in the public sector but opportunities coming my way have been commercial.

Perhaps there will be a role that bridges commercial and international work... something with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade perhaps.

” Whatever path Lushomo takes, she says it is the skills she learnt at Sacred Heart that have set her up well for university. “It was those soft skills that are so crucial… learning to ask the right questions, how to talk with people, think critically, analyse, think outside the box.”

And Lushomo has some words of advice to students looking ahead to tertiary study: “The first couple of weeks can be a bit daunting, especially after the structure of high school. But I’d encourage you to step out of your comfort zone a bit, say hi to new people.”

She also has advice for students generally. “Surround yourself with a genuine, empowering group of friends who share your values. And be optimistic and ambitious!

Set realistic goals… where are you now? Where do you want to be? What work do you need to do in between? “But among all the busyness is the beautiful thing called life – enjoy it!”

And regardless of where Lushomo’s journey in life takes her, whatever challenges she takes on, and changes she effects in the world, it’s safe to say she’ll be led by her values and her ‘why’, all packed into a metaphorical suitcase alongside her that will travel alongside her.

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