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Interview with Marita Cheng - Young Australian of the Year 2012

Marita Cheng grew up poor, living in a housing commission home in north Queensland.  As children, she and her brother were supported by their mother’s $20,000-a-year cleaner’s salary. Marita was an excellent student in school, finishing in the top 0.2% of the nation. After  graduating, Marita moved to Melbourne to start her engineering studies. In 2008, she founded the not-for-profit organisation, Robogals. In 2012, she was named Australia’s Young Australian of the Year. Marita recently spoke at Sydney’s Young Minds Conference  where the theme was How Do We Grow a Good Person?  Afterwards, happychild spoke with Marita about what it takes to achieve your dreams.

happychild: Marita, you are a young person who has achieved a remarkable body of work in your young life.  At the conference, you spoke about what it takes to achieve your dreams, and you said that young people should follow their passions. How do go about finding your passion in life?

Marita: Try a lot of different things when you are growing up. When I was younger, I was involved in a variety of activities: school, soccer, tennis, dancing, piano, languages. My mother supported us to learn a lot of things. I had time to let my imagination run wild.

You grew up without a lot of extras, and you excelled at school, piano and languages. How did you access opportunities for learning when your family had little money?

I think in Cairns, where I grew up, lessons may have been a bit cheaper than in cities like Melbourne or Sydney (laughs). My mother prioritised our education. She was very supportive of my brother and I. We didn’t eat out, or buy a lot of clothes, but my mother knew that the best she could do for me was to invest in my education, because she wanted to invest in my future.

Your mother wanted you to be a doctor, yet you loved engineering. How can a young person balance their parents’ expectations with their own? What if they are different?

I put more pressure on myself than my mother ever did. I thought ahead of my future and how I wanted to be working and living. I communicated with my mother that my passion was engineering and that I was committed to that. I was honest with her, and she understood.

In 2008 you founded Robogals. Can you explain what Robogals is?

Robogals is an international organisation that introduces girls to engineering and technology. Our university-student volunteers give free robotics workshops to girls in schools. The girls learn about robotics and also the impact that engineers can make in society. We hope to substantially increase the number of young women pursuing engineering in their tertiary studies and careers.

Did you face roadblocks when you were starting out? What would you advise young people to do when they face things or people that challenge their dreams?

Just understand that setbacks will always happen. Other people don’t always know what’s right for you or your project; other people can have a different perception of the world. There is not necessarily a right way to do things. Sometimes the biggest roadblock is internal: your own head telling you that you can’t do it, or you don’t know enough. But keep taking action towards your goals.

What if you keep coming across adversity and disappointment? What keeps you going towards your goals?

I have a mentor through a mentoring program with Advance Global Australian Awards. Having a mentor means I can speak regularly with someone who has a lot of experience, has done it before, and is real with me. It’s good to have people in your life who are interested in the areas you are interested in – people you can talk and collaborate with.

My boyfriend is a big supporter.  Even though he may not always agree with my goals, he knows me, and reminds me that previously, I have achieved my goals. He reminds me not to underestimate myself.

Honour your commitment to your goals. Take one hour to get back in touch with your original goals; remember the agreement you made with yourself when you wrote them down. It can seem overwhelming sometimes, but take time to map it out again, and think about creating the future you want.

What are your 5 top tips for teenagers to achieve their dreams?

Pick a goal or project that is cool enough: something that challenges you and will keep you  working towards achieving it.