Quality higher-level education is difficult to obtain in Pakistan, even for those living under the best of circumstances. For bright, young students from poor, rural areas, it is often a dream that invariably remains out of reach. In this cruelly non-egalitarian society, it is refreshing to find some who understand that educational programs for the underprivileged can dramatically change lives for the better.
That is exactly what the Institute of Business Administration’s (IBA) National Talent Hunt Program (NTHP) has been doing. NTHP is preparing talented students from the rural areas of Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, Gilgit Baltistan, and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) to take the IBA aptitude test for bachelor’s degrees in business administration and science. In doing so, the program is giving a much-needed academic chance to deserving young scholars, whose futures would otherwise be crippled by social and financial constraints. Dr. Zeenat Ismail, a respected education provider focused on psychology and human behavior, has worked to establish and administer the IBA programs for the past eleven years. And despite shrinking from publicity, she agreed to sit down and speak with me about all the great work she has done for education in Pakistan.
The Founding of the IBA Talent Hunt Programs
Clad in an elegant blue-and-white silk shalwar-kameez, with patterns reminiscent of Islamic art, and wearing turquoise earrings, Zeenat is a picture of assurance, dignity and professionalism. But it is also easy to see why students find her intimidating. Her attitude is firm and business-like, her visions passionate. Coming from an affluent Memon Pakistani family, a thriving business community in the country, the young Zeenat Bengali began her professional life as a lecturer at Karachi University (KU) in 1974. Fourteen years later, she went on to become the first student to receive her doctorate from the university’s Institute of Clinical Psychology, which was quite an accomplishment. Young women from Zeenat’s socioeconomic background, who had no need to work for a living, were rarely encouraged by their families to pursue a career—academic or otherwise— and her case was no different.
Had it not been for the persistent and sincere encouragement of her mentor and dissertation supervisor, the well-known Pakistani clinical psychologist Dr. Farrukh Ahmed, Zeenat tells me she would have despaired about ever receiving a degree. But where there is a will, there is a way, she says, and the astute Dr. Ahmed was able to bring out the best in her student, even helping her in various ways, like providing her with transportation to the university, making Zeenat’s life easier.
Zeenat then taught at KU’s Department of Psychology, eventually becoming a full professor. In 1997, she was hired by the IBA on deputation (meaning that her teaching services were delegated by KU specifically to the IBA) and confirmed in 2000. Inspired by the Lahore University of Management Sciences’ (LUMS) National Outreach program, Zeenat approached IBA’s then director, Mr. Ajaz Danishmand, in 2003, about the possibility of launching a need-and-merit based program for underprivileged students at the IBA. She won Mr. Danishmand’s support, and from 2004 to 2007 the fledgling NTHP was run at a relatively modest level from May to June of each year.
The program did not run in 2008 due to a shortage of funds, but the arrival of Dr. Ishrat Husain in the same year as the new dean and director led to the program flourishing considerably. In addition, he helped Zeenat create the Sindh Talent Hunt program (STHP) which specifically catered to the educational needs of students from the province of Sindh. The STHP was funded by the Government of Sindh’s Planning and Development Department, and ran concurrently with the NTHP from 2009 to 2011. In that year it was replaced by the Sindh Foundation Program (SFP), which continues to cater to the needs of underprivileged students from the province of Sindh.
With the support of the IBA’s present dean and director, Dr. Ishrat Husain, the programs have notably reached even farther in their ambitions. Zeenat gives Dr. Husain full credit for acquiring needed funding for the programs. “All I had to do was tell [Dr. Husain] I needed funding for an important aspect of the program, and he would work on it, and deliver,” she says with a mixture of awe and respect. Today, the NTHP, STHP, and SFP are known to have been supported by an impressive and long list of donors, including the Ihsan Trust, IBA Karachi, the Sindh government’s education and literacy department, and many more. Students who are eventually admitted to the IBA on the basis of merit through these programs are provided with an IBA education fully-funded by the institute.
Zeenat and the director are fastidious about providing students with the best guidance possible, and their results over the years have shown marked improvement. In 2004, nine of the nineteen students who enrolled in the NTHP completed their training and sat for the IBA aptitude test. One successfully passed the exam. In 2012, thirty-six of the thirty-eight students who enrolled in the program received training and took the test. A whopping eighteen passed. In the fall of 2013, six talented and qualified NTHP and STHP students spent a semester abroad at several U.S. universities as part of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program launched by the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in 2010. The program provides students with an all expenses and tuition-paid educational experience, and has given Zeenat’s students a chance to spend time learning and studying in states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Alabama.
A Commitment to Education
Zeenat’s care for her students shows in her work. Impeccably ethical and driven, she tries to instill the same spirit into each of her students. She is helped in this by IBA students with high GPAs, who also provide peer mentorship, as well as by her staff. Zeenat specifically praises her assistant, Rizwan Bukhari, for his professionalism and dedication. In his own way, he is as much a beneficial influence for the students as Zeenat herself.
Naturally, Zeenat feels frustrated when some students drop out, whether due to feelings of discouragement or culture-shock. But she knows she cannot give up on the NTHP and SFP, as it would lower the morale for everyone. Throughout our conversation, Zeenat tells me with pride about the stories of her former students, like Akash Soomro, whose life changed through the program. “He came from the rural town of Larkana, [and was] raised by a widowed mother. He ran his father’s small tea-shop. They were obviously struggling financially.” She pauses thoughtfully before continuing. “He was very hard-working, and made full use of our program. Today he is a manager at Philip Morris. Not only has he benefited, so has his entire family! I am a spiritual person, and view this humanitarian help as a type of Sadqa-e-Jaria (permanent alms-giving).” She tells me similar stories of students from around the country whose lives changed through the IBA programs. Zeenat is especially happy that her programs can help minority students; ninety percent of the students in the program from Sindh’s rural areas follow the Hindu religion.
To ensure that the students receive a well-rounded education, Zeenat takes them on trips to learn more about the world around them. She tells me about the time she took thirty students to a soft-skills workshop sponsored by the Punjab Educational Endowment Fund in Murree. She was hesitant initially, given the challenges that come with shepherding over two dozen energetic students across the country. But her supporters helped her pull it off, especially Mian Shahbaz Sharif, Dr. Muhammad Amjad Saqib, Dr. Kamran Shams, and Dr. Ishrat Husain. “Many of my students had never left their home province, let alone gone across the country. We all had to go in an IBA bus, together,” she notes wide-eyed. “The journey was forty-eight hours long, with a stop-over in Multan,” she recalls. “It was January, and at night there was a wonderful bonfire in the Murree snow. Many of the students had never seen the Pakistani hill-station of Murree. I was nervous, but it all worked out well. The workshop was very useful, and I’m happy that they all got to see Murree in winter. It looked scenic and beautiful.”
Despite formally retiring in 2009, Zeenat remains invaluable to the institute, as she continues to manage the talent hunt initiatives, and also coordinate foreign language programs including Arabic, Chinese, and French. She realizes the importance of disseminating information about NTHP to a wider audience, but remains hesitant about taking much credit for the work. With a touching simplicity, Zeenat says she enjoys serving her country this way. Despite numerous offers to work overseas, she has never thought of taking her considerable talents out of Pakistan. “I am a die-hard Pakistani,” she smiles mischievously, “and I love our national game, cricket.”
She continues more seriously, “I was very firm in my belief that my own children be educated in Pakistan, and utilize the numerous resources available to them here. I hope that I have helped to further the cause of Pakistani education in some way.” One can safely assume that she has.