The Secret Ingredient
I am not really sure what it is that enabled me to obtain a quality education and follow this career path. Perhaps it is my parents’ entire dedication towards education that led me here. Perhaps it is my professors’ encouragement and support that made this possible. Or perhaps it is divine help and plain old luck that played a role. My gut is, it is a combination of all that along with a secret ingredient, perseverance, without which nothing would have happened.
I was 17 years old in February 2001 when we found out that my dad was going to be posted in Geneva as part of the Pakistan Mission to the UN. As a scientist working for the government, international deputations were very rare. Also, my family did not have funds to send me to an international university, and I felt extremely lucky. You can totally imagine my excitement when we got the news. Actually, I was more than excited, since this meant the end of my would-be medical career. Yes, you guessed it — like almost all other parents of that generation, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. However, this divine intervention allowed me to think beyond medicine. Yet, pursuing my undergraduate education was not the easiest. I had passable grades in A’ Levels, which meant I did not get accepted to Geneva University, and had to join Webster University, a private American institution, which was super expensive.
I cried the day I found out that Geneva University had not accepted me. I was already a year behind my friends due to the transition between Pakistan and Switzerland, and had spent six months studying French day and night, only to find out that the University was not going to admit me. I felt the disappointment keenly, also because I knew how difficult it would be for my parents to pay the tuition fee at Webster. Yet, this third failure was probably one of the best things that happened to me. Quick important side note here — my first failure was not getting 9 straight As in O’ Levels, when apparently, my teachers had foretold the straight As when I was in grade 5 and reinforced it at every Parent Teacher Meeting! My second failure was of course my very average grades in A’ levels and now this! I use the word failure since my teachers and other well-wishers had made me feel terrible about the first two setbacks and with this third instance, I felt like I was doomed. You can call me dramatic, but I will choose the word sensitive. I don’t think people realize how sensitive teenagers are and how important it is to lift them up, not bring them down.
Now let me explain why Webster ended up being the best thing for me. I got accepted on a generous scholarship, which meant that I had to really focus on my grades to ensure its continuation. This put positive pressure on me to be responsible about my studies. Also, since this was not a full scholarship, I had to work part-time. This is what I would call one of the most important learning curves for me. I worked and studied, and worked some more — as a babysitter, a receptionist, a library assistant and as the Principal Assistant for the Head of International Relations Department. Furthermore, for four consecutive summers, I worked at the Aga Khan Foundation. I also taught English to children between 4 and 14 years old every Wednesday at a local Swiss school for three years.
Guess what this entire experience taught me — I was capable. I could not only do all of this, I could excel at it. I learned how to manage time, how to manage teams, and how to be disciplined. I was on the Dean’s list; graduated Magna cum Laude at the same time as my friends since I fast-tracked my studies; obtained departmental honors; received a Community Service award; was financially independent and had friends. And then, I got accepted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, also on a scholarship!
The point of writing all of this is to communicate a simple fact — regardless of how many times you fall down, you must pick yourself up and start again. You must reflect on what went wrong, try to see where you went wrong, and learn from your mistakes. It is easy to blame other people, other situations, and difficult to accept your own limitations. But it is only when you are able to see your own reflection in the mirror that the learning truly happens. And when you start course correction and work hard, you persevere. And when you do this, you believe in yourself again, and the world believes what you believe.