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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

From Chiniot to Harvard; the story of a boy from Pakistan

The road from Chiniot to Harvard was not easy, but in the end, it was worth it. Societal norms had to be challenged, language deficiencies had to be overcome and the will to succeed had to be retained.

From matriculation in Chiniot and a Bachelors degree in Karachi to Harvard University in USA; my journey has had me attend top institutes in Pakistan as well as in USA. It was not easy, but in the end, I can look back positively on taking the road less traveled by.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I will be studying at one of the prestigious universities in the USA, Harvard, as a full-time student, let alone with such a generous scholarship and that too after applying independently, Alhumdulillah.

The same holds true for my bachelor’s education and scholarship that I got from the IBA Karachi in Pakistan. The interesting element is to explore what kept me going during this seemingly laborious journey.

I was confused over writing this for a variety of reasons, but eventually, the will to motivate others surpassed every other thought.

First things first, all my humble achievements are more a result of my parents’ efforts and prayers, my teachers’ and professors’ faith in me, and my friends’ motivation and support than my individual struggle.

From Chiniot to Karachi

As a student from Central Punjab and belonging to a semi-urban area of Chiniot, I completed my matriculation from Misali Zakariya Science High School Chiniot, not to mention the memorization of Qur’ān that I completed by skipping class 6th, 7th, and half of 8th.

I, like many of my contemporaries, could only see an MBBS degree in front of me once I cleared matriculation with reasonably good marks. Thanks to the history of GCU Lahore, a bunch of Ravians in my family, and GCU’s fine reputation that made my family members send me to Lahore to study Economics, Mathematics, and Statistics.

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Confused as I always was about what to pursue academically, I applied to IBA for the scholarship, to at least ease the financial burden for my bachelor’s degree, and made it eventually. Now the goal was to clear the entry test and get admitted. I got lucky to clear the test by literally no margin, which is if I had gotten anything below 191.5 cutoff, I would not have been able to study at IBA.


One might think, oh getting into IBA on full scholarship leaves no room for grief, but there was much more to the story. Statements like “You go to IBA and you don’t study Business, oh what a waste of a degree it will be” also pressurized me and made me retake tests to transfer to BBA or Economics, but they were of no use.

One of the family members even said, “Your social sciences degree doesn’t deserve your effort to leave Chiniot and study in Karachi for four years”. I became a victim of that pressure and hence, tried to transfer during the first year. Later on, I started liking my social sciences and liberal arts degree and didn’t care what people said once I comprehended what the degree was all about.

Mastering English in Karachi

Now, coming from a background where memorization of academic concepts was given preference over independent thinking and conceptual understanding, I found it hard to excel at IBA in a degree where independent and critical thinking with creative and nuanced writing were the prerequisites.

From being the best student of English at my school to then not being able to deliver my point in the English class during the very first semester worried me. It was a massive cultural and academic shock for me. I still remember how my classmates kept guessing on what exactly I was trying to say about that short story. On a side note, I believe if you are not good in English and know your local languages better, you are all fine since English is a colonial gift that we still so much fetishize.

Read more: PM Khan met Harvard Club Pakistan, appreciated suggestions on national issues

The first summer came and I wanted to devote it completely to improve my writing skills. I got Dawn delivered at home, and I literally used to read it from A to Z having written some comments on the opinion pieces. Things started to make sense and I was better able to grasp the complex social sciences theories in the third and fourth semesters.

In the second summer, I interned at The News and got a couple of articles published. In the fifth and sixth semester, the courses made even better sense. That’s when I started to develop an unconscious thought to pursue my career in religious studies considering my background, good grades in Arabic and other Islamic studies courses, and the need for it vis-à-vis the imposition of a secular modern world onto us culturally, socially, and academically.

Road to Harvard

I was selected for an exchange program in the USA in the third summer. Later on, my graduation got a bit delayed but that’s when Allah SWT was preparing me to put my best efforts to grad admission applications.

Along with a typical 9:00 am to 5:00 pm corporate job, I spent my time exploring various schools to pursue religious studies for a Master’s. I heard of Harvard Divinity School from a professor when I was in the USA on exchange.

Read more: Harvard university can consider race in admissions, US Court rules

I applied to Harvard Divinity School for a Master’s in Theological Studies and a top school in the UK (where I also got accepted). So, the unconscious thought, to bring some light to the dark, selfish world, was given a practical value.

Eventually, all dots were connected with Allah SWT’s Grace and Blessings and I got admitted with a generous scholarship. Even during this grad-school-admission-application-struggle, I was told that people having a “rural” background should go for Fulbright and other such opportunities.

During all these ups and downs, one thing that I learned was if you are working hard having complete faith in Allah, you can achieve anything you want. People’s statements did obviously demotivate me for a bit but they never stopped me. Sometimes even if you do not achieve your goals by the barest of margins, Allah SWT redirects us to better things.

To put all this into perspective, my Chiniot background, my matriculation, my 2.5 years academic study gap, my intermediate, my confusion vis-à-vis academic pursuits, my inability to speak and write English at the start, other criticisms— all these did not become a hurdle in my way.

They constitute the harsh reality we live in and thus, we have no control whatsoever over them. Hence, we should keep going no matter what people say or what our circumstances suggest. We must move on. We might face some hurdles along the way, but we must not stop.

I hope and pray that you achieve whatever you want to pursue. And may Allah provide you with “Ilm-e-Nafih” (beneficial knowledge).

Souman Elah completed his Bachelor’s at the IBA Karachi, and will start his Master’s at the Harvard Divinity School coming fall. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.