Until two months ago, I was a medical student. It was in October this year that I decided to quit MBBS for astronomy — my lifelong passion. Sadly, in our part of the world, astronomy is hardly considered a full-time profession that can put food on the table.
By the time I realised that I must quit medical school, I was already in my fourth year, and as expected, faced tremendous resistance from my family. There were many reasons why my interest in acquiring my degree dwindled.
Poor teaching methods was one of them. Quite frankly, I also felt that my institute was only interested in churning out large numbers of incompetent, unenthusiastic and ‘mechanical’ health professionals every year.
I could not ignore the undue importance that was given to 'attendance'. A majority of my class-fellows attended lectures not to learn, but only to qualify for exams, and would then cheat shamelessly to pass.
They were afraid to fail simply because their report cards were sent directly to their homes. To make matters worse, my parents frequently reminded me of my exorbitant tuition fee, and how it was slicing off a big portion of their incomes.
As I pushed myself on and continued with school, I increasingly found myself spending hours in the college library, or roaming around the campus aimlessly to kill time. The classes failed to hold me in.
I tried, I really tried. I frequently sent myself on guilt trips over my parent's financial constraints, but to no avail. After a while, I just couldn't take it anymore.
Every morning, I would leave home, bunk class and sit in a coffee shop or restaurant to read magazine articles on science, physics and astronomy. During one of the loneliest phases in my life, it was the only thing that made me feel better.
Soon enough, every night, all I did was look at the stars through my telescope. In fact, this was the only thing that helped me survive the depression. I kept this routine up throughout my exams.
Exasperated, one of my parents even went so far as to threaten burning my telescope if I failed my exams. This took me by surprise. Of all the people, I expected them to understand how astronomy helped me retain my sanity.
For all the opposition I faced, my love for the subject only deepened.
It was during this difficult period of my life that I found the Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST). I became a member instantly, and have very recently been promoted to the position of Secretary.
Since then, many of my astronomy pictures have been featured in international news websites, including the Daily Mail and the New Scientist. I have also presented on astronomy to college and university audiences on multiple occasions, both inside and outside Lahore.
Most importantly, I have had the pleasure of conducting numerous public outreach events in parks and educational institutes in Pakistan, where I shared with youngsters the wonders of the cosmos through highly specialised telescopes, distributing free souvenirs to the public, and making sure everyone learnt something interesting about science and the breathtaking magnificence of the universe — a debate that remains criminally absent from Pakistan in my opinion.
None of the resources or the astronomy equipment I use was funded by my parents. Everything was received either as a gift or a token of appreciation for my commitment to the subject. In fact, I got my very first solar filter from Stephen Ramsden who was then the director of the world's largest solar astronomy outreach group — sent all the way from the US.
Almost everyone who knows of my decision to quit medical school had the same thing to say.
“You just had one year of school left! You could have completed that and pursued whatever else you wanted!”
As a matter of fact, I never should have decided to go to medical school. I was always so zealous about astronomy.
This brings us to the question of why exactly we are not affording our children who are fresh out of high school (grade 12) broader career choices?
Currently, most Pakistani children are presented with only three options:
1) Pre-engineering 2) Pre-medical or 3) Computer Science/Arts
Add to the limited choices, societal pressure from family and friends which creates too hostile an environment for students to make informed decisions with regards to their personal interests.
How many young adults do you know personally or otherwise who are working in a field that they have had a lifelong love for?
How many young people have been ridiculed by their parents, relatives or friends because they wanted to be professional athletes?
How many people blame ‘failed parenting’ for a child who has a natural flair for playing musical instruments?
Let’s face it. Academically, a worrisome majority of our youngsters are not specialising in subjects they actually like. The answers to all of the above are very obvious and not something we would like to hear.
I know it’s never an easy decision to give up something you have invested five years of your life and a lot of your money in, but I’m glad to have figured this out in time.
A majority of the young people in this country are not even given the time to think about what they really want to pursue, let alone speak their mind. How is the realisation that a person will almost always be good at what they do provided they love doing it, lost on us?
We must provide an environment where our children's curiosities are nurtured.
Unfortunately, our education system and our social structure take ‘passion’ out of the equation altogether, and as a consequence, children become submissive hollow shells without understanding the rationale of what they are doing and without the ability to question.
Essentially then, we are creating a generation that lacks ambition — we are refusing thinkers, discoverers and inventors into our society.
There need not be more medical college dropouts or sullen young adults “ready to face the world”.
A more sensitive approach is required on part of parents and policy-makers for this important aspect of our lives. The future of our nation, its economy, growth and innovation, all directly depend on the state of our youth’s mental independence. It is a matter that requires our utmost concern and attention.
And indeed, it is a matter of our survival.