Falling through the Cracks

10 May

On April 13, Ishfaq Hussain, a second-year student at Aga Khan University committed suicide. No one knows why he died. He left a suicide note but this has been confiscated by the Aga Khan administration. All that is left of this young man is a few news stories. Those seem to be fading fast too because he wasn’t the son of anyone important or the popular guy friendly with savvy internet warriors on his side, fighting to keep his name alive online.

As I tried to learn more about the life of this young Pakistani, I was surprised that there had been few follow-ups in the news to his mysterious death.  It is strange that we place so little value on the life of one of Pakistan’s best and brightest. The Aga Khan University has a very strict merit-based system for admittance to its medical program. This young man had competed successfully with thousands of bright Pakistanis to win his spot. Nine years ago, I had done the same and also won a spot. But I turned it down. Reading about Ishfaq today, makes me realise that it might have been the best decision of my life.

In Pakistan, medicine is the gold standard of professions and AKU is its mecca. Many people were rather baffled when I turned down the AKU admission. I turned it down because I had also been admitted to Yale that year on a full scholarship. Ironically, Yale was more affordable for my middle-class parents, who are both teachers, than the cost of sending me to Aga Khan.  So I was packed off to Yale all alone. I, an only child, who had never been apart from my parents was rather devastated on arriving in New Haven!

My devastation lasted only one day. From the minute I arrived at Yale, there was always someone who was assigned to be looking out for me and never in those four years did I feel alone or devastated. The second I stepped on to Yale ground, there was an international student counselor at my side. He picked up my heavy bags and carried them to my third floor room. To this day, Mansoor Razzaq helps with all kinds of “heavy stuff” in my life. Then there was Aakanksha Pande, who gave good girly advice and great hugs to all the homesick international students.

As school began, we were all assigned to freshman counselors, who were students in their final year and were chosen through a strict system of screening to be guides and mentors for incoming students. My freshman counselor, a blond, blue-eyed girl from Iowa, Paige Herwig, was one of the most inspirational people I met at university. Not only was she a straight A student, member of the most prestigious societies on campus, admitted to every law school that she applied to, but she also had a great loud laugh and sense of humour and an ability to listen. Her door was always open for advice and counseling.

Many a times when the competitive environment at Yale got overwhelming, or when there was trouble between friends and roommates, or when the sight of homework made one want to faint, one could go talk to Paige, Aakanksha, or Mansoor and get perspectives on how different people coped with stress. These were people who were friends and peers and with hindsight and experience had important lessons to pass on to the younger generations of Yalies.

Those were the life lessons that got me through college. Other than students, paid and trained by the university in my care, there was a host of faculty who were assigned to the well-being of students as well. Sadly, Ishfaq had no such people around him. There were no people assigned to his care and well-being. Given that he did not have many friends, had there been students or faculty tasked with looking out for him, he might not have committed suicide. Someone might have been able to ask him what was wrong and perhaps even given him advice on how to deal with it so that he might have not felt so hopeless as to have taken his own life.

In even the best Pakistani universities, it seems as if financial gain is the main aim and the well-being of students a distant second at best. Great educational institutions are not built on financial success, they are built on the greatness of their students. Fixated on being better businesses rather than nurturing the individual talents and personalities of students, higher academic institutions are not putting funds into providing services and healthy outlets for dealing with the high levels of stress and social pressures that students can experience.

Student suicides happen in all institutions in the world, where there are high stress environments. AKU is no different. However, in other institutions, there are people and mechanisms in place to prevent this. Despite those, students slip through the cracks and unfortunate incidents take place. However, at AKU, and other universities and colleges across Pakistan, there seems to be no system in place to even try to catch any of the students who might be slipping.

This is a shame. This is a particular shame in the case of the Aga Khan University, because it was one of the institutions that we could all proudly claim compared to the best institutions in the world. What is criminal is the fact that many on the faculty and board of the university have had the privilege of attending some of the best schools in the world and experiencing the services available there. But these faculty members have not insisted on extending similar support services to the children that they took under their wing to teach.

This shy, sporty young man from Chitral, who was one of Pakistan’s best and brightest, lies dead today because those who took on the responsibility of educating and nurturing him failed to fulfill it. The death of Ishfaq was caused in part by the collective negligence of the AKU faculty and staff. During his life, they were unable to offer him the support that they should have. I only hope that in his death, they will have the decency to accept their institutional shortcomings and start a public debate on how we can improve the quality of life for students so that there are no more tragic stories like that of Ishfaq Hussain. I hope AKU will not let this young man’s death be in vain.

Sehar Tariq is a blogger pursuing a master’s degree at Princeton University.

This appeared on the Dawn Blog May 10th 2010Falling through the cracks.

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One Response to “Falling through the Cracks”

  1. Aisha February 22, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    First let me inform you this person Sehar Tariq is not even a medical doctor. She choose the line of another profession. She claims all this, she should sit and try to become a student counselor. Becoming a counselor is not easy nor sending students to such or even psychiatrists without being noticed as sending my child to a “paglo ka doctor” Does she know how tough it is to have an advisor, student counselor or psychiatrist in place for students?

    As far as financial aspects, there are ways to afford to AKU that are in place. Sehar does not know about these ways like loans, financial aid, scholarship, etc. Just getting an admission on a full scholarship does not mean its the end of an admission in AKU, so why not go for medicine in the USA?

    If she thinks that medicine was that easy in the USA, then she should have tried but this level of stress is there in the American medical schools and suicides happen there too. As they say medicine is not just a science or an art, its a profession, that you have to be born and made to do.

    I don’t think she was cut out to be a physician as we can read her profile here https://pk.linkedin.com/pub/sehar-tariq/27/b20/223

    None of her credentials have any relation to medicine. I hope others at AKU also read my comments. Yes AKU is behind but they are learning and made progression fast and are in the process of implementing change. They do so at a pace that is commensurate with respect to the society since change must be in line with the wishes and aspiration of the people, in AKU’s case, the faculty and staff not only, but students and parents. Till not all have equal footing this change cannot be implemented fully.

    Comparing to Yale in regards to AKU not having this is like comparing apples and oranges since Yale is a full fledged university more than a century old, AKU not more than generation has passed since its inception. Secondly stating whats financially more viable is Yale, well it has more resources. Lastly if she had studied medicine in the USA then she should speak but since she never ventured near premedical education, MCAT’s and the stressful process of admission she should not pass any further comments.

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