Unlike most of her fellow Victoria University (VU) classmates, Pooja Haria spent her early years in a country clouded by hardship.
Born in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to Indian immigrants in 1992, the now 23-year-old Melburnian reflects on her birth country with bittersweet nostalgia.
"Growing up in Kenya is much different than growing up here, there was a lot of theft and crime, but that never stopped any Nairobian from doing their daily routines," Pooja says.
"Yes, you would hear the awful stories of kidnappings and death, in addition to the extreme terrorist attacks that have happened in the past few years, but this is due to the fact that Kenya is filled with corruption, greed and poor politicians ruling the nation," she says.
"What I have experienced is probably a crumb of how bad life in Kenya can be. I had a home, food and my family growing up.
"I’ve come from a very hardworking middle class family that have struggled through life."
Accustomed to defying the odds, Pooja is the only female in her fourth and final year of a mechanical engineering degree at VU.
Her engineering study path began in 2011, when she graduated from Oshwal Academy Nairobi Senior High under the Edexcel British curriculum and went on to complete a one-year American Degree Transfer Program in engineering at Taylor’s University in Malaysia.
While her parents were by no means poor, Pooja admits they struggled to provide an education for herself and older sister, who still lives in Kenya.
"My family didn’t experience the kind of poverty you hear about in other parts of Africa but we definitely weren’t well-off.
"Luckily I grew up in a strong Indian community, who were very supportive of education."
In 2013, Pooja’s community (Oshwal Education and Relief Board), sponsored her to move to Melbourne to study mechanical engineering at VU.
The only female in a class of 30 fourth-year mechanical engineering students, Pooja has become a beacon for young women in science and engineering.
In March she was invited to attend an Engineers Australia Women in Engineering event as part of International Women’s Day, and she also helps facilitate a VU high school program that encourages young women to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"I’m the only female in a class of 30 males so I do think the numbers need improving," she says.
But at the same time, the University treats all students equally – you don’t get any special treatment just because you’re a girl."
As treasurer of Victoria University Motorsport, a student group led by mechanical engineering undergraduate students, Pooja also helps design and build race cars for annual competitions.
When she’s not tinkering with race cars, Pooja works as a sales assistant at Bunnings and loves to kick the soccer ball; last year she played for Altona Magic.
She says she is forever grateful to VU for "giving me opportunities I could never imagine".
"The teachers here aren’t just teachers, they’re mentors."
"If you’re willing to learn, they will open all the doors of opportunity for you."