After scoring big at home, aspiring astronaut gets a chance to pursue her dream abroad

To 16-year old Aiman Fatima, self-motivation came at a young age.

She remembers when she was about 11, and came in fifth in her final exams at school. Her scores were above average, but Aiman was crushed. She vowed that day to top her class next year, and began studying harder. Fast forward a few years, and Aiman is one of the highest achieving students at her school in Saudabad, a densely populated town in Karachi’s Malir district. She has secured first position in every grade for the last three years, and scored an A+ grade in her ninth class board exams last year.

And recently, Aiman won a coveted scholarship to study for an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma in Norway, at the United World College – a prestigious global network of 15 schools and colleges across the world. She plans to specialize in physics and eventually become an astronaut.

Aiman Fatima with her family at their home in Karachi (Photo: The Citizens Foundation)

But life wasn’t always smooth sailing for Aiman. When she was just six months old, her birth father walked out on her mother to remarry, leaving her alone to care for her and an older sister. Aiman’s mother struggled for several years before marrying her stepfather, who gave Aiman and her sister the love they never had from their own father. But the family, which rents a small home in Malir’s Moeenabad neighborhood, could barely make ends meet on his small income as a salesman. Soon after Aiman’s younger sister was born, Aiman’s parents were forced to remove her from the local private school where she was enrolled to save on the monthly fees.

That year, a TCF school opened in nearby Saudabad, offering a pay-as-you-can-afford option to students from low income families like Aiman’s. The nonprofit runs 1,202 such school units across Pakistan, serving neglected communities where public schools are either failing or inaccessible. Aiman’s parents heard about the school, and decided to pay a visit. The family was impressed by the brightly-lit, well-equipped campus and the attentive teachers, and applied for admission. Aiman was immediately enrolled on scholarship. With most of her school expenses covered by the scholarship, Aiman’s parents started out paying Rs. 100/month in her school fees. By the time she was in eighth grade, Aiman, as well as her younger sister, were going to school for free. Aiman’s class teacher, after seeking approval from her family, had taken on the responsibility of paying the two sisters’ fees.

Reaching higher

When she was in seventh grade, Aiman’s science teacher inspired her to take greater interest in physics. She fell in love with her science text book, and was particularly fascinated by its description of the galaxy. She now wants to become an astronaut.

“I want to travel to the moon. I want to see what the earth looks like from the space,” she says.

After her board exams, TCF’s head office invited the stop-scoring students from its school network and held a session informing them about the United World College scholarships. With her family’s encouragement, Aiman decided to apply. Following the application process and interviews that lasted a few months, she got a phone call one day telling her that she had been accepted. She was overjoyed.

“My mother and father were very happy for me, but then my mother began to cry because I had never travelled abroad before,” she recalls with a smile.

Going abroad isn’t the only first for Aiman. She will also be the first young woman in her family to go to college, as neither her mother nor older sister got a chance to study past 10th grade. After completing her IB diploma, Aiman wants to continue her education in Norway, but then wants to return home.

“I will come back and support my country, and I will support myself,” she says.

Aiman also plans to become an advocate for education, which she considers Pakistan’s only sure path to progress. She worries that with its lack of sufficient educational facilities for a fast-growing population, Pakistan is at risk of being left far behind the rest of the world – and the only remedy is to make education available to every child, regardless of who can afford it.

“Just the way my family was unable to afford my educational expenses, there are many other families here who want to but can’t send their children to school,” she says. “When I reach a position where I can help people like us, I will try my best to support them.”

These are the dreams of a 16-year old girl, whose education has empowered her to believe that the world is her stage. She is not alone. There are currently 175,000 students in TCF schools across Pakistan, many of whom come from circumstances more adverse than Aiman’s. The nonprofit’s subsidized education model has transformed lives in communities where girls’ education was once unimaginable; where boys were expected to become breadwinners before they hit puberty. The organization recently adopted 256 government schools as part of a new pilot project, which is part of a broader plan to help Pakistan’s public education sector learn from its successes in cost-efficient education management, teacher training and innovative learning approaches.

This partnership is a small, yet critical step toward putting Pakistan on a path to enlightenment through education—perhaps the only one to rescue it from the web of ignorance that plagues it today, and to help many more girls like Aiman dream a different dream.

This story is based on interview transcripts provided by The Citizens Foundation. Quotes have been translated from Urdu and edited slightly for brevity. 

A mercilessly edited version of this was published in the You Magazine (The News). 


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