A fuller picture of Aayushi Khillan, quite the youth icon

By Indira Laisram
Aayushi Khillan (top centre)

As Aayushi Khillan watched herself on prime-time television – having just won the Melbourne Youth Champion Award 2020 for her work with students during the pandemic –  she couldn’t help contain her excitement. “The fact that it came on TV meant that my whole family and friends could rejoice,” she says.

As an afterthought, she adds: “But more than that, it was a nice platform for me to continue my work because it gets my name out there and lets me get in touch with other organisations. I am really grateful for the opportunity to continue my work.”

However, this is not the only time Khillan, 20, came into limelight. As the first student representative to take her seat on the board of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), which advises on school texts, class content and assessments for every student in the state, Khillan made it to the front page of The Age last October.

How she became a VCAA board member is not hard to fathom. Khillan worked with a few youth organisations including the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC) during her final high school years. While with VicSRC, she made a valuable suggestion about getting a youth to the VCAA board, something that did not go unheeded as the board actually opened up applications. After a lengthy process, Khillan, who applied for the same, won the coveted spot.

Aayushi with her parents and younger sister

The prospect of a young person on board an institution like VCAA, one imagines, is great for the unique perspective he/she brings. And it is this belief in the conviction of her own uniqueness that Khillan brings to the table. While she recalls, with a laugh, how the members joked about her reducing the age of the board by 30 years with her mere presence, she stresses, “No doubt these are people who are experts in education but someone who has just experienced the education system also has unique perspectives that are equally as important.”

Khillan believes her other strength is innovation. “Sometimes, a lot of the suggestions I make are radical. But when you break them down in discussions, you can make a concrete yet unique suggestions for the future.”

A first-year student of biomedicine at the University of Melbourne, Khillan will serve the board for three years. Since joining VCAA last October, she says the first few months were spent trying to get accustomed to the entire position and finding her voice. But when COVID-19 hit the world this year, her work took off.

She was able to understand the pressing needs of students and suggest changes that directly aligned with those needs. Things such as increased consideration for students during this time, more support for migrant communities and communities that lack access to computers and internet, reducing Year 12 contents and delaying exams were some of the highlights. “The changes that were facilitated ultimately came out of these suggestions and discussions thereof,” she says.

Childhood photo of Aayushi with her parents

For all her work, this November Khillan was given the City of Melbourne Youth Champion Award during the annual City of Melbourne Awards. The award is a fair gloss on her work.

Her other accolades include being in the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Australian Asians Dean’s Honour List 2019, getting the WH Swanton Exhibition Award Leadership Award, and Ambassador for Girledworld.

Born to doctor parents of Indian origin, Khillan and her family moved to Australia from Saudi Arabi, where her parents were practising, when she was just three years old. School was an intense time of exploration and she says her parents never pushed her into excelling in academics or targeting the scores.

When she was younger, Khillan wanted to be a hairdresser. That progressed to architecture and eventually it evolved to medicine, she says. And with an ATAR score of 99.90 last year, she also won the Chancellor’s Scholarship that guaranteed her entry into medicine at the University of Melbourne.

With children in Nepal on a trip last year

While she has been academically inclined, she has, at the same time, been involved with extra-curricular activities and youth advocacy. That, she says, has been born out of “pure passion”, a trait she believes she has imbibed from her father Dr Raj Khillan, who despite his medical practice, is committed to community and social work.

“You have to do other things outside of academics to keep you motivated. If you focus on one thing all the time, it can be boring and exhausting. Anyone who works hard and has the right support can definitely do few things as well.”

Khillan also says that the leadership opportunities that she got in Mac.Roberston Girls High School really opened her eyes and honed her skills. “So, when I left school it wasn’t as daunting to put my application to do an interview or to apply for different advocacy positions.”

The hard work gives her continuity even with a hectic university life studying medicine. However, she also says, “If you are genuinely passionate about something, you will always find the time to do it. Even though I come back from university after what might be a long day, I still feel motivated to work on youth advocacy. Obviously, on top of that is just a bit of time management.”

Among friends in high school in one of her leadership roles

Asked how she sees herself five years down the line, Khillan says she wants to continue to reach out to more people. “One of the things I will be focussing more on in the future is health awareness, that’s another passion, it aligns with my career. Kamala Harris says ‘you might be a first to do a lot of things but you don’t want to be the last’ and I beleive in it. I want to empower and mentor others to take over my position when I am too old to be called a youth anymore.”

In her narrative of growing up, doing the fun things such as hanging out with friends is important too. “That’s unmissable, those are the hallmarks of childhood, I do all those all those things as well with a little bit extra on the side,” Khillan says, with a laugh.

Khillan’s views on success are pretty straightforward. “I don’t see success the generic Indian way. I feel it is the happiness you have in your life. No matter what you are doing, if you are happy with yourself, happy with the connections you have and happy with your work—that is a successful life in my opinion.

“I don’t sit here counting awards or the amount of work I do. I feel successful and gratified because I feel happy with what I am doing.”

Way to go!

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