Q: What precisely about Pakistan appealed to you and lured you to work with this nation?
A: I was concerned about the magnitude of the crisis in education there. There are 75 million children out of school globally, and nearly 10 percent of them reside in Pakistan.
Q: Could you outline some of the biggest obstacles you faced in your journey of setting up schools here?
A: One must have a good sense of humor and patience to negotiate the numerous obstacles in the way of setting up schools in Pakistan. Our biggest obstacles are the lack of coordination amongst agencies working in the sector of education and development and on occasion dealing with local interests in proximity of the schools who attempt to stop education, particularly of females, at any cost.
Q: What has been the most rewarding experience for you in this journey?
A: Seeing the faces of children after they completed their first year of school – for many their first year of school ever. It was like seeing brand new children. Bright eyes where hopelessness loomed just a year before. Sing song voices and the happy chatter of young inquisitive people, where a quiet had prevailed when they began. Children sitting up taller, where a lack of confidence had been just a year before. Smiles on the most beautiful little faces.
Q: How many schools have you established/locations/student enrollment/teacher enrollment/specifics about results?
A: We have two schools operating and another one planned. The operating schools are in Sheikhupura and Barakaho. These schools serve 240 plus students. They employ 12 local teachers. Over 1,200 meals a week are served to these children further boosting the local economy. An additional 100 children are reached in the United States via our partner classroom project that connects the schools in Pakistan with classrooms in the U.S. The premise being that a lack of understanding only promotes hostility. Friendships between the children are strong. These are children who will not nod their heads if someone tells them the ‘other side’ is all bad. This is something needed for the American children every bit as much as the Pakistani children.
The results are determined via traditional testing and site visits for monitoring and evaluation. The schools are thriving. I am very proud of the teachers and children. The proof is in the pudding as they say. This year we had to turn away an additional 120 applicants who had learned of the schools via word of mouth. Funding alone stands in the way of our capacity to deliver education to all of those worthy young children who apply.
Q: What academic curriculum do they follow? What made you choose that?
A: They follow a modified and augmented version of the Govt. of Punjab curriculum. We chose that so the children would be getting an accredited education but we also wanted more for them. We utilize modern pedagogic approaches to learning in the classrooms. More why and how questions in place of what questions. Critical thinking in place of rote learning. The teachers receive training in these areas and they are rewarded for any additional education/schooling they receive on their own.
Q: Who was the first person in Pakistan who took a step forward to assist you, and how did having this local connection help you with your endeavor?
A: The first person was Hassan Abbas who is currently the Quaid-i-Azam professor at Columbia University. He was a classmate of mine at Fletcher School and Kennedy Government School nearly 10 years ago. He taught me a lot about Pakistan during our time in school together. And then five years later, when I grew tired of waiting for the U.S. government to do more to prevent the growth of extremism in Pakistan by supporting education, Hassan Abbas encouraged me to start Marshall Direct Fund. He then connected me to a trusted group of contacts in Pakistan to help me with the endeavor. Today our team is 98 percent Pakistani and comprises the most spirited and committed group of individuals you will ever see.
Q: How can average Pakistani youth attending schools and Universities participate in your cause?
A: We urge university students to launch Marshall Direct Fund Circles at their schools. These support circles can work together with MDF. Students can raise funds to support our programs. And of equal importance, we are very open to having students come to our schools as guest speakers. They can serve as something akin to a big sister or big brother to the students in our schools… keep the children motivated to work hard. University students can also help with book drives and with technology. They can donate used computers and computer programs to the schools. And if they are so inclined, we welcome them to provide training in the computer sector. The children and the teachers would love that! Being in an MDF Circle helps young students feel engaged in their world and their country. We are the biggest proponents of getting young people involved. They have so much to gain from the experience….especially leadership and capacity building skills. And seeing the smiles on the faces of the students is pretty memorable too.
Q: Why do you believe investing your life in education would make a difference?
A: Because I have seen the change in these children’s lives with my own eyes. And if that was not enough, studies show that investment in education has one of the highest payoffs to society of all possible expenditures. Did you know that for every 1% increase in education there is a .3% increase in economic growth? And for every increase of one year in the average schooling of a population, the risk of civil conflict is reduced by 3.6 percentage points?
Education of girls is especially rewarding to society.
When a girl in the developing world receives 7 or more years of education, she marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children. She can then provide greater attention and investment in each child she does have.
An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20%. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25%.
When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40% for a man.
Educating a girl reduces the infant mortality rate and ensures better healthcare for each child a girl has in her future.
Can you think of a better asset to invest in than a girl in the developing world when considering this immense returns to society?…Especially a girl in a country facing conflict as these children have the least amount of access to international economic support.
Q: What do you, with your honorable experience and expertise, believe that Pakistan requires most in the education sector? A revised curriculum? More teachers? Female teachers? Incentives? Better teacher training programs? More parental involvement?
A: Well, I must say that I believe the people of Pakistan are in the best position to answer that question. I can offer that in our experience community involvement is the key to success for a school. A ground-up, community support system must be in place to ensure the longevity of a school and prevent the growth of ghost schools. The teachers and families of the students will notify you if something is not going well in the school and a good administrator always wants to know what is working and what is not. Local, community food producers and seamstresses should be used whenever possible. Additionally, the style of learning must be exciting and one that promotes critical thinking skills. More science, less rote learning. And yes, female teachers are statistically proven to be the best choice for teachers of young people. Statistically they engage their students more effectively and they are not as prone to using corporal punishment which does nothing but teach a child shame.
Q: During your work, you must have come across families who refuse to send their daughters to work due to conventional reasoning – How did you deal with this?
A: We do come across this on occasion although surprisingly less frequently than one might think. Usually the decision not to send a daughter to school is an economic one and/or out of concern for her privacy and safety. Having female teachers and bathrooms for the girls helps give families confidence that their daughter will be safe and respected at school. In the most resistant cases, we can take the son to school first. The family becomes comfortable with the school via their son and then the next year they send their daughter too. We have affirmative action, yet applied gently and carefully so as not to shock a system already in place. But quite honestly, I have witnessed proud Pathan fathers fight quite firmly for their daughter’s right to go to school or for their daughter’s right to be a teacher. These fathers would make any daughter proud. The key is engaging the families.
Q: How can the upcoming generation of Pakistan follow in your footsteps? Where should/can they begin if they would like to establish schools as well?
A: I urge the rising generation of Pakistan to place education as the centerpiece of their country’s development. Students can and should insist that all children have a right to attend school and then do what they can to make that happen. If they want to set up schools, I encourage them to work with other reputable NGOs and/or to partner with govt. schools to help bring about improved educational quality and access. MDF welcomes all students and other supporters of our cause to reach out to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . Our team will facilitate all offers to help.
Q: How can Pakistani students studying abroad help you and your organization? Any specifics?
A: Same as local students (above) but not as practical to visit the schools I realize. Anyone can still help with fundraising and awareness generation via MDF Circles (which can be launched at any school, we have supporting materials and ideas). Some students show films about Pakistan to increase awareness. Others read books as a community. And some meet monthly for coffee or tea and discussion of the current events. Any of these ideas can be a part of fundraising by just asking people to give $10 to attend. Anyone interested in starting an MDF Circle group can email email@example.com .
Q: If you would like to share any advice/suggestion with Pakistan today, what would that be?
A: Make as many investments as you can in advancing access to quality education for all of your people. This is paramount in unlocking your country’s full potential.
This interview was conducted by Aanya Niaz.