Aisha Thomas knows what it feels like to not belong. When she was 9, her family picked up their roots in Sierra Leone and moved to the United States. Thomas already had been the victim of sexual violence and didn't understand that she was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
She remembers being really excited to move to the U.S. because she knew it through a pop-culture lens of Michael Jackson and George Michael.
"It got hard," she says. "I was bullied. It was a lot different than what I knew. From day one, I knew that something was different about me: how I dressed, my accent."
Even though she understood the words, the idioms were different in the U.S. "I didn't really fit in."
By freshman year of high school, she says, she was hanging out with the wrong people and had attempted suicide.
"I became someone else to fit in," even down to how she pronounced her first name, she says.
That's when she first saw a therapist and began to really understand what she had gone through.
Thomas, now a master sergeant in the Air Force, is a career adviser for airmen at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, but she also educates members of the military and civilians about suicide and interpersonal violence for the Department of Defense. And she gives presentations in schools for girls, especially, who know what it's like to not fit in.
She'll be at Girls Empowerment Network's 12th We Are Girls Conference in November to spread the message of "the power of you walking in your own path."
"Your gifts and talents are important," she says. Her goal for the conference as one of the keynote speakers "is for everyone to understand their amazingness and individuality."
That's very different from the message of social media, where it becomes a comparison game, she says.
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"If I had constantly changed myself to fit in, I would have never known individuality," she says.
That might sound like an interesting takeaway for a woman in the military, but Thomas says the military really helped her as someone who always had been a follower. The Air Force told her walking in that she would be a leader, that she needed to have a growth mindset. "It helped me tap into leadership."
Thomas balances her military career with being a mom to her son, who is 6, and her daughter, who is 7. She asks herself, "Do I want to make it to the top? What am I sacrificing? Will you have to fight with presenting yourself in a different way? To be a black woman on top of that, it's a whole other dynamic."
Thomas began talking about sexual abuse at schools and universities through RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, as well as to military and civilians through the Department of Defense.
"I learned the power of my voice," she says. "After I spoke, there was a bunch of women that got up and said, 'I never talked about this, but I was sexually assaulted.' To make another woman or man share what happened to them and get help, it was my pain that tapped into a purpose."
She started writing a book after that experience. Thomas has a workbook for students called "Trendsetter: 7 Steps to Radically Standout to be the Best You" as well as a book for parents: "I Didn't Know Any Better: 5 Topics Every Parent Should Discuss With Their Girls." Both are on her website, aishathomas.org.
Thomas says she hopes she can build an example of what her daughter's future can look like.
"She knows that she's empowered in who she is," Thomas says of her daughter.
"The trauma I went through, the same lessons that I teach young girls, is the same thing I live in my household," she says.