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Illustration by Michael Leo

Behind the Scenes: The Pakistan Student Association

With several changes taking place due to the virtual semester, the current Executive Board has taken the opportunity to host discussion based events to tackle significant issues being faced by the Pakistani community.

Nov 21, 2020

On Nov. 13, the Pakistan Student Association, a Student Interest Group at NYU Abu Dhabi, hosted the forum “Quit Pakistan Syndrome: Intellectual Drainage from Pakistan through a Sociopolitical Lens”. With over 900 registrations from within the NYUAD community and beyond, the forum was the first of its kind for the PSA, most popularly known for its cultural programming.
The Forum
Featuring notable personalities working in various fields in Pakistan, including academics, policy makers and advisors to the prime minister, the forum was concerned with the question of why young talent choose to leave the country after their education or choose not to return if they were educated abroad.
The topic of the forum was chosen due to its current relevance to students at NYUAD, and also to a wider audience of expatriate professionals and students. “The reason we chose Quit Pakistan Syndrome… when we’re thinking of PSA’s globally, what is the one thing that we can all talk about? We could’ve taken religious fundamentalism, or some other very specific Pakistan issue, but we started with brain drain as an idea, something that many developing countries face,” shared Maira Sheikh, Class of 2021 and President of the PSA.
The reasons discussed as leading to Pakistan’s brain drain included political instability in the country’s recent past, the status of academia and the opportunities, or lack thereof, it provides, the economic situation and prevalent gender disparities.
“What’s happening in the social sciences [in academia in Pakistan] should worry a lot of us… anyone asking difficult questions is part of a foreign agency,” argued Ammar Ali Jan, an academic and social activist who is part of the Haqooq e Khalq movement in Pakistan, referring to the structural and security constraints faced by rising academics.
Tania Aidrus, former Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Digital Pakistan, and the only woman on the panel, nuanced the prevalence of gender inequality in Pakistan. “There’s a very specific role to be played by people at the top about how women are to be treated. It’s a trickle down effect,” she explained. “This is not a checking practice, this is about good work practice. We’re leaving half of our workforce out. All of us have a role to play here.”
Ultimately, Aidrus stated that women choosing to work in Pakistan unfortunately require resilience to challenge gender biases in the workforce.
“Until and unless we recognize that Pakistan is part of the world, a world that is increasingly integrated and multicultural, [and that] the expectations of people have widened, not just those who are returning from abroad but even young people within Pakistan are cosmopolitan … We have to integrate them within our discourses and within our structures,” Jan argued. “Until and unless we do that, we’re going to continue seeing brain drain.”
The general consensus of the panelists, however, was that Pakistan’s political, economic and social landscape has improved over the past few years, with more professionals finding incentives to come back to work in Pakistan — even though there is still a long way to go.
Asghar Zaidi, Vice Chancellor of the Government College University Lahore, concluded on a sentimental, patriotic note, for those who resonate with it: “There is no dollar value of coming back to your homeland... no matter how difficult it gets.”
Changing Gears This Semester
The forum marks a shift for the SIG, which has previously set its mark on the community through its cultural programs; the Annual Mock Wedding being the most popular, but also Basant, Truck Art and more. The Mock Wedding planned for spring was postponed indefinitely at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The online semester makes it challenging to orchestrate cultural events via zoom, so PSA has taken this opportunity to focus more on dialogue and discussion based events, something that had been in the works by past eboards, but never took form.
“The role of PSA in various universities, traditionally, has not just been towards cultural engagement. In our governing document, we have mentioned that we aim to work on communal and international platforms,” explained Hasin Shabbir, Class of 2023 and Vice President of the PSA. “PSAs have been active in talking about critical issues from home and engaging in dialogue, and we realized that this might be a good environment to shift our focus towards that.”
The SIG has further made use of the virtual environment by conducting Instagram live sessions, called Baat Cheet — Chit Chat — with PSA to engage in dialogue about critical issues in Pakistan. Two sessions took place so far, one with Maria Memon, a prominent female journalist about the role of women in the media, and another with the founder of Taskeen, a nonprofit organization concerned with mental health and advocacy.
Other than the programming, building upon the work that has been previously done is also on the agenda this semester. “The election process has been a constant conversation, and we’ve been working on it throughout the semester… we have worked on the governing document which hadn’t been edited since PSA was formed,” elaborated Shabbir.
Building a Network Beyond NYUAD
Another focus for the SIG this semester has been on building a network of Pakistani Student Associations around the world. The outreach conducted for the forum was one way for the SIG to make itself known at a global scale. And it was successful: students from various countries attended the forum, especially since it had been shared by student associations in other universities, such as the Pakistan Students Union at Harvard University.
The PSA previously collaborated with the Pakistan Youth Forum, the official youth wing of the Pakistan Association Dubai, for an event called “Let’s Talk About Youth.” “We’ve been trying to find ways to build a network, here in the UAE. From what I’ve heard from alumni, students and other people around us it hasn’t always been easy. So we felt like let's try to work on that… And Pakistan Youth Forum felt like a good gateway,” elaborated Shabbir.
What’s Coming Next?
“What makes NYUAD different is the way we celebrate diversity,” said Sheikh. “To be a cultural SIG in the context of this diversity gives you a lot of agency to add to [it].”
One expectation from the current Executive board is to build upon the groundwork laid by the forum specifically. “The idea was to set some sort of a ground, which we believe we did. Now, we want to work towards getting it established as a hallmark event,” added Shabbir.
The SIG still hopes to engage the community through the Mock Wedding legacy, and it has done so this semester by planning popular dance competitions and Zoom tutorials, leaving the audience with just enough anticipation for the next mock wedding, whenever that will be.
Huma Umar is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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