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Serendipity Stories: Episode 2 — An Astronaut’s Perspective

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Listen to the Serendipity Stories Podcast on your mobile phone (Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, TuneIn) or on your browser (RSS Feed, Website). Here’s the transcript for Episode 2 with our host YeSeul Kim and guest Rafiya Sultana.

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Rafiya: I cried for so long, so long. Then after that. All that I can see is blank darkness around me. There was a silence. A scary silence. And I cannot hear anything.

Welcome to the Serendipity Stories. I’m your host YeSeul Kim, here to share the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments.

In this episode, Rafiya Sultana and her serendipity story begins with a discarded newspaper that brought her hope, despair, and ultimately purpose. It takes us to the window sill of a high rise apartment in Singapore. It was just an ordinary day….

Rafiya: It was Thursday night at 1:30 AM, I guess. I was in my living room. My daughter was sleeping in another room. It was a dark night and one of my legs was hanging outside the window and another leg was hanging inside the window. I was sitting. And I was sitting and thinking, not so good about myself. And I wanted to jump out of the window.

What led Rafiya to contemplate suicide that night? It turns out that her pain stemmed from a dream, a dream that she nurtured since she was six years old. A dream she was not allowed to have.

Rafiya: I’m from India. It’s a small town in India in Andhra Pradesh.

Rafiya: And yeah, it’s a tiny street. The moment you step out, you can see everyone, people gazing at you. It was a bit friendly.

She lived in a modest home with no running water, an outhouse, and two dim light bulbs.

Rafiya: Oh, it’s a tiny house. We had just three rooms. And we were seven members in our family. We were all living together. And all of us, we sleep in the same room. [Laughs]

Career aspirations were not in the cards for Rafiya, a little girl living in a conservative village.

Yeseul: What were girls expected to be and do in your community?

Rafiya: All that is expected is definitely to be a good mother, a good wife and they will groom you mentally, physically and emotionally, completely so that you can you will later on, once you grow to be 16 or 17, you turn out to be a good wife mother or like a trophy. You know, you can be a trophy wife to your husband.

Rafiya: Education is a luxury for us. So we need to really work hard to educate ourselves so that we can get scholarships.

Rafiya: And I loved, loved to go to school. Somehow it was also helping me to forget and escape from what was happening at home. So quietly, I was pursuing my education. Thankfully, I was doing well. It’s OK.

Despite their poverty — and the cultural expectation that girls shouldn’t focus on their education, Rafiya’s mother was always her cheerleader.

Rafiya: So my mother had to do a small scale business so that she can educate us because you are three girls… And technically we were not allowed to go to pursue higher education and nobody really bothered whether we are doing well in our education. But my mother was keen. So even though she was not educated, she makes sure that three of us are educated.

Rafiya’s mother was very resourceful, patient and compassionate. She wasn’t educated but she worked hard to make ends meet so she could pay for her children’s schooling. She would even bring home discarded newspapers from their neighbors food stall so her children could practice reading. One day, Rafiya picked up one of these newspapers and something caught her eye.

Rafiya: When I was 6 or 7 I got a tiny newspaper from our neighbors. In that I saw a tiny piece of paper where it was mentioned the first Indian woman in space. Her name was Kalpana Chawla.

It was 1997 and Kalpana Chawla was part of the six-astronaut crew that flew the Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87, orbiting around Earth. Rafiya read the crinkly, greased article about this space hero, staining her fingertips with ink.

Rafiya: For a second, I was amazed to see that picture. I had no idea what exactly, how space worked, how it was. I have no idea. Nothing. But one thing that came into my heart and mind, and it’s stuck so deeply, that is this is what I wanted to be — an astronaut. Yes, it was totally unexpected for a girl like me, who was born in such an environment to even think about completing her education, but this was highly impossible. I had no other resources besides this tiny newspaper. But that was there that day onwards. I mean, that became my life. This is what I wanted to be and I wanted. I will do everything that it takes to become an astronaut.

After the break, we follow Rafiya’s journey to become an astronaut and how she found herself dangling outside of her window.

Rafiya Sultana was a girl from humble beginnings who had a moonshot dream to become an astronaut. She worked quietly and diligently toward her dream. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school. Then, she followed in the footsteps of many astronauts and went to college for engineering. The path was anything but easy.

Rafiya: I really did not have a table for sitting and writing. Sometimes I sit on the mat. Sometimes I would sit on the floor. And in fact, when I had to do this drawing sheets, like when I was in my engineering first year, I had to draw a big drawing sheet. So what I’ll do is put that drawing sheet on the floor. I’ll take four stones so that I can keep it fixed and I can finish my drawing.

YeSeul: So you had this dream from age 6 to 21. You worked your whole life to get to become an astronaut. But did you tell anyone about your dream of becoming an astronaut?

Rafiya: Never. Never ever.

Rafiya: First thing as I said, I have always been someone who never shares anything and quiet. But besides, I think I don’t need to fear or a lack of confidence. I never shared with anyone because deep inside my heart, I was thinking that nobody will understand. If I tell this. And before understanding, nobody will accept even, like I mean…nobody would encourage, even.

While keeping her dream a secret, Rafiya reached a new, incredible milestone. She landed a prestigious job at an aeronautics company. The day after Rafiya began her new job, she got a phone call from her mother.

Yeseul: So basically you were working at a firm that was on the pathway for you to become an astronaut and then your mom, due to social pressure, pushed you into an arranged marriage.

Rafiya: I think I fully cannot blame the culture or the mom or not my mom at all. I think it’s a part of me. If I want, I could have said no. I never had the confidence to say no or express what I want or what I don’t want.

The arranged marriage was a part of fulfilling the family duties. Rafiya didn’t want to let her mother down, who worked so hard to support her all her life. Out of deep respect for her mother, Rafiya quit her job and agreed to the arranged marriage.

Rafiya: She was waking up 3 a.m. every day and she was working until 12 at night. She was taking care of us, four of us cooking for us, and she had zero help. She was doing everything for us. So I was doing my part so that at least all the hard work should not be wasted.

Yeseul: In the Western world, we had very little concept of what an arranged marriage feels like. Obviously you accepted it. But describe what it felt like to someone who has never experienced an arranged marriage.

Rafiya: Oh, I. I met my husband. Even talked face to face on the day of my marriage. One night after that, marriage is done. So how it felt? I don’t know. Frankly, there are only two things that was there in my mind. Somehow I feel like maybe I can pursue my education after my marriage — one thing. And also I was I don’t know, somehow I was being positive that maybe I can pursue and continue my job or something.

At age 23, Rafiya would meet her husband for the first time on her wedding day. Remember, up until a couple days ago, Rafiya had been focused on one goal — and one goal only — to become an astronaut. But soon after the ceremony, Rafiya became pregnant with her daughter. Her life changed so quickly, and it was hard for her to process it all.

Rafiya: Immediately when I got conceived my daughter and besides the icing on the cake, is that I was married to my husband. He’s a sailor. So it’s like three months he’ll be sailing and 1–2 months he’ll be at home. So I was a young girl, ambitious girl whose life totally changed to the unexpected phase. And a young mother was not even prepared to be a mother, who doesn’t know how to be a mother. And they’re living in different parts of the world with him. [I was] alone most of the time like a single parent, because he will be away. It’s a lot to take…It’s just it’s not only about just the marriage. It’s it’s so many things. At the same time, I have been in a blink of an eye, that I did not even get the opportunity to think and even mourn for what all happened.

Rafiya: It’s not so difficult for me to adapt to what was were given to me. I was highly adaptive, but deep inside my heart, it was killing me. Yes..

Rafiya forced herself to stop thinking about her career so much. But deep down, she felt unheard and all alone.

Rafiya: Nobody will understand. My dreams. Nobody will understand my loss. Nobody will understand what I’m going through.

Rafiya: It was a deep emotional trauma that I was trying to ignore and replace by being replaced, my thoughts in my life and my schedule by being busy with doing everything, you know, like a family, like…everything that a mother does, like a house wife. So I think the deep pain inside me, I think I was facing it slowly, but I was just trying to suppress it. I was so surprised by the way I behaved.

She recalled the night when she decided her life was just too unbearable.

Rafiya: It was a dark night and one of my leg were hanging outside the window in them and then another leg was hanging inside the window. I was sitting. And I was sitting and thinking, not so good about myself. And I wanted to jump out of the window. That was the [sighs]. I was not even responsible about my child who was sleeping next to my room.

Right before she jumped, Rafiya’s husband noticed her on the edge of the window and pulled her back into safety just in time. They faced each other in the living room, both shocked at what had just happened.

Rafiya: That moment, luckily, my husband came from nowhere — I don’t know where because it was already night. He dragged me inside and I was in my living room shouting and shouting so loud because I have always been quiet. I think that was the first time in my life, I mean, shouting a lot.

Rafiya: I cried for so long, so long, and I was shouting so loud. After that, all that I can see is blank, darkness around me. There was a silence. A scary silence. And I cannot hear anything.

Rafiya: This was only one question in my mind, like, what is the purpose of my life? Is this how it has to end?

After so many years of being quiet and suffering alone, Rafiya needed to understand why? What had led her to contemplate suicide in the first place? She started her journey from a point of self-discovery toward a path to self-mastery.

Rafiya: First thing I had definitely had no answers to the questions. So eventually I wanted to find answers. But besides everything, I did one thing which I have not been doing . . . that is it loving myself.

Rafiya: Putting myself as a priority. Putting my own happiness or thought as a primary priority than anything else in this world.

Rafiya: So I did that at least. So as part of that, I started taking care of myself. I started exercise and I started, I got into psychology. Of course, throughout this process, I never stopped learning.

To get the answers she needed, Rafiya went back to her first true love — education. With her husband’s support, she pursued a Masters in Neuro Linguistic Programming. This would allow her to better understand the psychology behind human behaviour, which she was fascinated by..

Rafiya: So, one, I promised myself that, first of all, I will be the better person. But no matter what happens in my life, in the given, with the best possible given resources that I have at that point of time. I will do everything it takes to be better, at least to be a positive person, because I was highly negative about everything that is happening in my life. So slowly. I pursued my education. I started taking care of myself. I started understanding completely what was happening to me, why I was behaving a certain way. So then I started getting more and more answers.

In parallel, she used her pain, past experiences, and newfound hope to pursue a career dedicated to helping others. This was also what began Rafiya’s own healing process.

Rafiya: So fast forward ten years, today, I’m a speaker, professional speaker, trainer and coach who helps others to get rid of the negativity in their life and transform their life.

Rafiya began coaching informally. It began with a volunteering gig with other women who had lost their voice and confidence. She continues this one-on-one work with people today, now as a professional life coach. Rafiya’s speeches on emotional resilience and personal leadership have also resonated with corporate clients. Her latest coaching methodology is aptly named “An Astronaut’s Perspective.”

Rafiya: An Astronaut’s Perspective. What is an astronaut’s perspective? When astronauts look back [at] the earth from the moon, it changes their world view. This is what exactly I want to do with my unique methodology, An Astronaut’s Perspective, based on the life changing experiences, research, case studies and learning about human behaviors in my life. That if we can change our perspectives to change the way we perceive our difficulties during change and uncertainty, we can turn every change in our life into an opportunity for growth. And that growth is not complete if you’re focusing only on the materialistic achievements. The growth is complete when we achieve holistic growth, living our true life purpose that is inclusive and for the better world.

Rafiya continues to be a spark of serendipity and a catalyst of change for many others. But I had to ask Rafiya how she felt about her own life changes.

YeSeul: Rafiya, do you regret not becoming an astronaut?

Rafiya: Not anymore. I think I crossed that level. Initially, I won’t say no, because for a long time it was a part of my life. It still is a part of my life. But I am in a position to help many people if I’m achieving that dream all that happiness only belongs to me. But if I am living my purpose, I am living for the people, It’s it’s nothing about me. It’s much more bigger than me, which is my purpose. I found my purpose.

That was Rafiya Sultana from Singapore, on how she turned her broken dream into a passion and a purpose for helping others find their voices, just as she found hers. Learn more about Rafiya’s transformational coaching at www.neuroexcel.org

Thanks for listening. I’m your host YeSeul Kim. Ben Severance and Nora Connidis Boydell are our co-producers. Editing also by Nora. Don’t forget to subscribe to Serendipity Stories and follow us on Instagram and Facebook @serendipitystories.podcast.

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The Serendipity Stories shares the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments. We might call it luck, fate, a freak accident, or a coincidence. But over time and with a bit of reflection, when we find meaning in those special events, we call it serendipity. Expect stories that are full of irony and whimsy, love and tragedy, and despair and hope.

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Business exec with consumer research background. PowerPoint storytelling ninja. Currently writing a booking about business + relationships.

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