Source: The Express Tribune
One student’s journey from small-town Balochistan to Harvard University
By Maria Waqar
Located on the outskirts of Quetta, is the barren valley of Mariabad where the Hazara lead slow-paced lives. These tribal people, living in narrow brick huts speckled along the rugged hillside, typically sell loose cloth, sweaters or tea for their livelihood. Like most poor people, their aspirations rarely go beyond sustaining themselves in this underdeveloped nook of Balochistan. Many of them live and die in Mariabad — unaware of the complex concerns and tremendous pace of life in urban centres like Karachi and Lahore. But one student — the son of a trader who sold Quaid-e-Azam style caps in Mariabad for a living — dared to tread a radically different path.
Karrar Hussain Jaffar transcended the confines of an obscure town in Balochistan, where people rarely educate themselves beyond matriculation, to study at the prestigious Harvard University. His story — a narrative about the wondrous possibilities of equal educational opportunities — is truly inspirational. “My childhood friends, with whom I spent my youth playing cricket, drive suzukis and rickshaws in Quetta for a living, while I am a PhD student in the US,” says Karrar in a humble tone. “I often wonder why God chose me, out of all the people in my community, to get ahead in life?” Karrar attributes his educational achievement to his father’s passion for his children’s higher education.
He vividly remembers the chilly morning when his father showed him the ad for Lahore University of Management Sciences’ national outreach programme (NOP), which aimed to sponsor education and living expenses for capable students who could not have afford to pay. “I was doing my FSc at Cadet college and didn’t even know a single thing about LUMS at that point in time,” he fondly recollects. “I didn’t take the ad seriously because LUMS did not offer engineering, the field I was interested in.” When he returned back to college from his winter break, he attended a presentation by a LUMS’ faculty member, who introduced students to the national outreach programme. “At the end of the presentation we all took a pre-screening exam,” he explains. “A few weeks later, I got a letter from LUMS inviting me to attend sponsored classes for SAT preparation.”
During the four weeks he spent rigorously studying for the SATs, he fell in love with LUMS. To him the institution seemed otherworldly; its grand building, spacious classrooms and impressive teachers fascinated him. “I never knew things could be so orderly and perfect; it was like I was in a foreign country,” he remarks. “I felt very motivated to study hard and join the institution.” But his herculean struggle with English often left him frustrated. “I had always dismissed English as a colonial remnant in our country so I really struggled while preparing for the test.” Yet with utmost dedication, Karrar managed to clear the screening exam at the end of the four-week training and was selected to take the SAT exams, sponsored by the university. After obtaining an impressive score in his SATs, Karrar got admitted in LUMS and was offered a full scholarship and a monthly stipend. “I came to LUMS in very high spirits,” reminisces the bright student. But Karrar, who had attended the NOP training program at LUMS during the quiet summer break, had never seen the institution in full semestral bloom.
When he saw throngs of students, clad in western wear and fluent in English, emerging from every nook and cranny, his excitement gave way to culture shock. “I was used to wearing shalwar kamiz, but at LUMS most people were wearing jeans. I would greet people by saying salaam, while the other students would ask ‘what’s up?’” he recollects in an amused tone. Often feeling like a misfit during his first year at university, Karrar mostly spent his days with other NOP students. “But after a year I managed to befriend other students from Lyceum and Karachi Grammar school.” He sheepishly adds, “After a year I figured out that ‘what’s up?’ is equivalent to saying salaam.” Karrar graduated on the Dean’s honour list, with a cumulative grade point average of 3.7 and 3.68 in his majors, Maths and Economics, respectively. “I got job offers in the banking industry after graduating but I turned them down because I wanted to tread an academic path,” he explains in a categorical tone.
A year after graduating, Karrar got a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US. “I simply told the interview panel that I want to come back to Balochistan after completing my studies. That’s where my home is; that’s where I belong,” he explains passionately. But perhaps the most memorable moment in his life — an incident he recalls quite animatedly — was when he found out that he made it to Harvard University. “I had no internet at home in Mariabad so I walked 15 minutes or so to a nearby internet cafe to check my email for Harvard’s decision,” he explains. “When I saw the acceptance email, I just thought it was too good to be true.”
Yet after he raced back home to reveal the news to his parents, his moment of rapture soon transformed into a session of lengthy clarification. “My mother asked me what Harvard was and my father asked me to wait for potential offers by other universities” he says with a laugh. “It took a while to convince them that I got into the world’s top university.” But ironically for a student, who was left disconcerted by the ‘westernised’ student body at LUMS, adjusting to life at an American institution was smooth sailing. “After LUMS, I was very used to being around different types of people so studying and living in the US was not such a problem.”
Karrar completed his Master’s last year and is currently pursuing a PhD in Economics from the University of Southern California. What does he want to do with all the knowledge he is amassing? “I want to increase educational awareness in Balochistan—particularly amongst people from my community,” he says. The young academic’s goal might seem like the reiteration of the clichéd promise of “development” that many educated Pakistan promise their country.
However, Karrar is actually a first-hand witness of how education can revolutionize communities and places. “Because of all that I achieved, my parents allowed my sister to get college education in Lahore and my brother got the motivation to get a scholarship to study in Australia,” he says with a hint of pride. Karrar confesses that most of his family and friends cannot even comprehend what his life is like in the US. But he is fairly confident that after he returns, he can change that. “I can make them realise the value of education,” he says.
Originally Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2011.