SOCIETY: DEGREES OF SEPARATION

August 18, 2019

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Composed by Mariyum Ali
Composed by Mariyum Ali

Ali Amir completed his Masters degree at Harvard University on a Fulbright scholarship. He also received the selective Joint Japan World Bank Graduate Scholarship granted to only eight candidates from across the world every year.

But for young Ali, a carpenter’s son living in Gilgit, Harvard was a long way off. As a child, every day Amir made his way up a rocky hill to go to school in the village of Danyore, in Gilgit. The small Urdu-medium school sat atop the hill. “It had only two classrooms, one veranda, one tiny staff room and no toilets,” says Amir. “The students would defecate in open air, behind an old three-walled hut built probably to give shelter to animals.” There was no water facility either. “We would walk down to the bottom of the hill where we would have fresh water flowing from the mighty Rakaposhi.”

Neither of his parents had received formal education. However, they realised its importance. It was a scholarship programme that opened the doors of educational opportunity for their son and made true a life they could only have dreamt of.

‘Scholarship students’ continue to face discrimination and often struggle to integrate at elite universities. Does access to elite education actually ensure social mobility for the underprivileged or does it simply perpetuate class disparities?

While fully funded need-based scholarship programmes at elite private colleges/universities provide bright and accomplished youth like Amir an opportunity to realise their potential, for many poor young people finding themselves suddenly living among the privileged is never easy.

Amir still remembers the summer of 2005 when he first headed to Lahore to one of the country’s premiere private institutions to attend the orientation for scholarship students. It was like a 10-day-long boot camp during summer break, only a select few incoming students were called to attend to familiarise them with the rest of the student body they would meet when the fall semester began.

“That programme was well-organised academically,” says Amir, who graduated on the Dean’s Honour List. “However, not much thought was put into how well these students could be integrated into a new social culture — a culture which was only a few degrees apart for everyone who belonged to the city, but for those of us coming from villages the degrees of separation were manifold.”

Fully-funded scholarship programmes offer a life that could not have been possible if there were financial constraints. But are these scholars seen as equals by their peers who have lived the city life and study in elite colleges and acclaimed universities?

University campus life continues to reflect larger societal values that are perpetuated either subconsciously or consciously. Equal opportunity in theory does not always translate into equal opportunity in practice. Amir felt this acutely while studying at the private institute in Pakistan. Quality college education is meant to transform individuals not just through academics but through experiences and interactions that turn them into well-rounded personalities, but what happens when those experiences are restricted only for some?

“Private universities are a bubble where anyone from an underprivileged background can see what privilege means,” says Amir. “Pakistan is a society where need-based scholarships are looked down upon, because most of the students know that scholarship students are the poorest of the poor. Many of these students can’t speak English, and even when they do, their accent is not as Americanised. Urdu is not their mother tongue either, they probably grew up speaking some third language as their mother tongue. They do not wear branded clothes and, on top of this, they perform well academically, making things more competitive for their peers.”

Samee Hussain was born in Balochistan. Growing up, he moved across multiple locations all across the country because of his father’s employment. He ended up at a cadet college but there he changed his mind about enlisting in the military and instead completed his FSc from Government College University, Lahore. This is where he first learned of a scholarship programe to study at an elite, private university in Lahore. Hussain says that he and many of his peers felt ‘otherised’ in subtle ways. The scholarship students developed friendships early on because of the orientation as they related to each other on certain things.

“It was very difficult to make friends,” says Hussain. “Once you get labelled as a scholarship student, everyone knows that you come from disadvantaged families and that determines your social standing in the student body. Not everyone looked down on us but some people did and that created some unpleasant experiences. Sometimes there was discrimination in societies and clubs. A friend of mine was an aspiring singer but he never found a guitarist to play with. The people who dominated the Music Society at that time felt that his kind of music might not be as cool.”

Hussain feels that class and social mobility are inextricably linked, though social mobility is harder to attain. “We [students from an FSc background] were always the executioners and not the thinkers. This is the biggest hurdle in terms of social and class mobility,” he says.

Amir thinks this is why the privileged class feel uncomfortable with this breed. “But thankfully, not everyone among the elite students thinks like that,” he says. “There are people who encourage you and they tell you that winning a scholarship is a lot more difficult than showing off your parents’ wealth and, if anything, a scholarship is something to be proud of. As much as I would like to have more people of the latter kind than the former at my university, reality might be otherwise. It was indeed a challenge to integrate socially with a society that continuously repelled us.”

Hussain recounts that, during his freshman year at college, a debate sparked on campus email, when a bunch of students started sending mass emails demanding that the administration should cut down the number of scholarship students instead of increasing the fee. Many students shared their anger towards scholarship recipients. Students who were on self-finance began to pressurise the administration to decrease need-based scholarships instead of increasing the fee.

Can access to an ‘equal’ platform to access quality education ever be enough to bring about a change in mindset and the society? Do elite private institutions play their role in breaking down the lines of social hierarchy or are they just microcosms of the larger society perpetuating social inequality?

“We were still new back then so we didn’t really know how to voice our concerns,” says Hussain. “The administration tried to explain to the student body that the money for need-based scholarships didn’t come from the fees of the self-finance students. However, I still feel the larger student body wasn’t convinced with the arguments of the administration. It was a very uncomfortable experience to be passive recipients of blame like that.”

When he entered university, he particularly felt that one part of the overall disconnect between students on self-finance and those on scholarship was based on differences in educational upbringing. According to him, unlike students coming from an A-levels background students from an FSc background were less versed in reading, comprehension and critique.

“I feel that one of the biggest problems most students from middle-class families studying in elite schools face is the language barrier,” says Hussain, an ethnic Baloch. “In Pakistan, we have a class that speaks English and sees it as a vehicle for understanding the world. I agree that it allows you to read certain kinds of literature and theory that can broaden your perspective. But having a non-native language as a determinant of social prestige in school settings is very problematic. It keeps people from expressing what they really feel,” he explains.

Hussain feels that class and social mobility are inextricably linked, though social mobility is harder to attain. “We [students from an FSc background] were always the executioners and not the thinkers. This is the biggest hurdle in terms of social and class mobility,” he says.

Similarly, Amir too feels that cultural mobility is something that takes a while to attain, and regressive attitudes by all groups in society further hinder the process.

“For such form of social mobility, an academic degree from a prestigious institution does not matter, but exposure to various cultures and people from around the world makes the mobility possible. If you have spent the first 18 years of your life where male dominance was a norm rather than the exception, then merely a degree on gender studies is not going to change that perspective which has seeped into your subconscious. You need to be immersed in a culture where men and women stand equal, for opportunity and for resources,” says Amir.

Gender identity adds another layer of social discrimination to an already marginalised group. Sumaira Farhan talks about her particular experience as a woman from a conservative background who made her way in the big world through accessible higher education opportunities. Farhan was born in a village near Gujjar Khan and moved to Rawalpindi with her family when she was in grade five. So when she joined a private university on a scholarship programme, the challenges were even more complex based on her position as a woman. She had to improvise and adapt her social skills to make the most of her time at college.

“Very early on, I felt mocked in many ways,” she says. “I would try hard to be a part of a conversation. I had decided that I would learn to laugh at myself if it gave me access to certain kinds of social circles. But I did not have real friends who knew the actual challenges that I was facing.” Farhan’s biggest fear was to be alone. She had had some really weird experiences with people who she thought were her friends. “It was soul-crushing to be honest. Everyone used to make fun of me all the time, so I thought it was normal. However, I would retort with a light-hearted comment and take it in my stride. My main focus was to get a good grade point average (GPA) and have a good time,” says Farhan.

Farhan, who is now working as a manager in an accounting firm in the US, was one of the first girls to be inducted in a private university under this fully funded scholarship programme.

Stepping into a new world via college life and educational opportunities can set you apart in the eyes of not only your peers but also those back home. As you adapt to a changed environment, people view you as a different person as you exercise your independence of thought more. But social class here too complicates your identity.

Farhan, now divorced, feels that this realm impacted her more because of her gender.

“I came from a background where dating was considered a vice,” says Farhan. Marriage is arranged by family and that’s it. So even when I had crushes, I never thought that I was good enough for them. Then, after graduating from a liberal, elite institution, the first issue was that I did not remain typical ‘Pakistani wife material’. Some people found my education, earning ability and opinions to be an attractive characteristic but then they would walk away when they saw my social class.”

Despite her qualifications, Farhan says that one of the major causes of her divorce was the attitude that her former husband (a Pakistani based in the US) harboured towards her socioeconomic class. “He pointed fingers at every little thing in my family and me,” she shares. “I tried very hard to be a part of the family but it was never enough.” In such cases, quality education fails to act as an equaliser.

Despite being free of many rigid traditional norms based on gender segregation, many private institutions continue to reinforce class boundaries. Sometimes, though people may form friendships, it is rare for those friendships to translate into meaningful, lasting romantic relationships.

Hussain shares how coming from segregated schools, it is hard for people to learn to interact with the opposite sex and so dating becomes a long shot. “In Pakistan, because of the culture of arranged marriages, we don’t get to experience how it feels to be in the company of the person with whom you’d want to spend the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s not that we didn’t desire to date during university years, but we just didn’t know the nuances of this kind of activity. It was for the first time that it felt like we were on our own. I ended up moving to Europe in my late 20s where I found it easier to meet different kinds of people. It took me a very long time to figure out myself and then to understand the kind of person that I want to date.”

The assumption behind the theory of providing quality education for all is that this will translate into social equality for marital and career prospects. But access to competitive jobs especially does not only depend on being a graduate of a famous institution. Social capital is seen as key in terms of not only access to better employment opportunities but also future growth.

“I started teaching economics at Beaconhouse School after graduating,” says Farhan. “It was a low point for me. I did feel that there was a bit of an elitist culture in the job market overall. I heard of a three-year training programme with big accounting firms in the US, where you are a full-time employee while completing an accounting certification. The selection process was very hard but I managed to join them. My brother and extended family weren’t happy back then but now they are proud of me,” adds Farhan, who ended up finding employment abroad.

Can access to an ‘equal’ platform to access quality education ever be enough to bring about a change in mindset and the society? Do elite private institutions play their role in breaking down the lines of social hierarchy? Or are they just microcosms of the larger society perpetuating social inequality?

Comparing himself to his peers who were not on scholarship programmes, Hussain feels that if you inherit a social network, you are automatically at an advantage and education cannot always catch up to that.

“Education does play a big role in social mobility,” says Hussain. “It changes the way you think and it gives you a lot of tools. Opportunity, however, is something different. For lucrative opportunities you need to have a certain kind of network and it takes a while to form that. It takes even longer for students like us.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 18th, 2019