By Sonya Rehman
In Pakistan, scholarships for students hoping to receive funding for undergraduate and graduate programmes are few and far between. While some private institutions (in addition to some not-for-profit ventures) award partial and/or full scholarships to deserving students, financial aid and scholarships are greatly needed in the country to support young Pakistanis in their drive towards receiving a wholesome education to better their chances of landing a good job, upon graduation.
Personally, if I’d never landed the Fulbright Scholarship in 2009, I wouldn’t have been able to afford going abroad for grad school, much less afford a plane ticket.
Initiated in 2003, ‘RizScholars’ awards scholarships to “exceptionally bright” and “severely economically challenged young Pakistanis.”
“If they elevate their family’s standard of living, if they make a viable and respectable life for themselves, that is all the payback that we look for,” states Samina Rizwan the Founding Member and Vice Chairperson of RizScholars. Currently working as a Senior Director for the Oracle Corporation, Rizwan states that RizScholars hopes to equip its scholars “to look after their families, to make a dignified place for themselves in society and, in some special cases, achieve extraordinary feats of learning, innovation and entrepreneurship.”
The selection process is simple, high achievers with a GPA of 3.5 (or above) are preferred once the applications are received. “Since most of our applicants are first divisioners,” Rizwan says, “Nearly everyone qualifies in this regard.” Therefore, the next criterion is the student’s financial standing, “the income level must be insufficient for educational support.”
Stating that the initiative’s applicants are “from the poorest of backgrounds,” such as children of farmers, drivers, government peons, rickshaw drivers, etc – Rizwan mentions that over the past few years a number of applications were received from victims of both the flood and earthquake disaster, in addition to victims of terrorism.
Per year, RizScholars awards approximately fifty scholarships over a 2 – 4 month selection period. But Rizwan stresses that her venture can, and will, only take on scholars that it can “support till the end of their program.”
“While donations continue to arrive and are now nearly predictable, we never take on a Scholar without confirming that total cost of support is available in our accounts right now, today.”
“We have seen devoted fathers with extremely limited incomes and exposure – drivers, farmers, tailors – who have invested equally as much in their daughters’ education as their sons’ and have proudly accompanied their daughters for interviews and sat quietly, humbly as their confident young offspring answered the panel’s questions,” states Rizwan, mentioning that it has been painful turning down applicants with poignant “stories of need but not sufficiently good grades.”
But those lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship? “We always tell them that what they receive from us is not charity, it is a scholarship that they have earned and must continue to deserve because of their exceptional capabilities and consistent performance,” says Rizwan.
Mentioning that she never nurtured the notion that her “humble venture” would morph into an ambitious, “glamorous, aggressively advertised, ‘brand,’” Rizwan remains content with her venture’s contribution towards educating young Pakistanis. “We are a small but highly credible, extremely trustworthy and completely auditable venture which aims to have longevity as opposed to branding greatness.”
Revealing that she has some loyal donors – Standard Chartered Bank for one, which donates to RizScholars as part of their ‘Help Educate Pakistan’ program, in addition to individuals, some of whom are consistent in their donations and support – from Rizwan’s own pool of family and friends.
“In a perfect world, regardless of grades, every Pakistani would have the right to the best education and a uniform education, for rich and for poor. There really should be no need to assess academic brilliance as a pre-requisite; rather it should be the expected outcome of a well governed and charted education policy,” Rizwan states, “However, in this imperfect world, one is limited by a lack of funds, by an inadequate system and processes, by a shortage of committed volunteers, and even by dishonest applicants who look for ways to beat the checks and balances, so one forges ahead with whatever imperfect, insufficient contribution one can make.”
Yet, Rizwan agrees that in Pakistan, the talent is unlimited. If given a chance, the young Pakistani generation can truly bring about consolidated ‘change’ within the country. But for that, an educated society is key. “It is absolutely criminal that this brilliance lies untapped, generation after generation,” Rizwan states.
Pointing out that once her scholars graduate and begin applying for jobs, Rizwan found that a “whole new set of success stories” begin evolving. One scholar in particular, upon his graduation, was employed by a large organization in Lahore. In another example, a scholar received a scholarship from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaigne; “wholly because his sheer brilliance was meant to be noticed and he just needed a push out of his circumstances. He sent dollars back to us as donation – what a treat!”
Citing another example, Rizwan states; “A young girl from Hunza, originally not allowed to travel out of her town, ended up completing an engineering degree at UET Lahore, possibly because our Chairman, Air Cdre Rafi, convinced her father that it was fine for a girl to live in a hostel and study.”
“Ours is an effort which will reap results not in one generation, but over two to three generations,” says Rizwan, “Our support of one individual could catapult a family into a higher standard of living – from it would emerge more scholars, professionals, and learned Pakistanis. We expect exponential increase over generations. It’s the only sustainable model.”