Sky is the limit: My journey from Sargodha to the University of Oxford
When I was 12-years-old, I remember hearing about an institution known as the University of Oxford, but it felt too far away to ever become a reality. While I knew that if I worked hard I could probably get in someday, I never imagined the path life would take me through to finally get here. A path filled with adventures around the globe, and a chase towards learning from some of the world’s brightest minds.
I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, and received my Master’s through a program that allowed me to live in four different European countries and travel to many more. I am sharing my story with the hope that my insights may not only serve as inspiration to prospective students, but also guide students from Pakistan who share a dream of receiving a good education, but do not know where to begin their path.
It is not the easiest road by any means, but can be one filled with adventure and knowledge. I do hope this guidance will lead to greater representation of Pakistani students overseas, and as a result, the path may become an easier one for future generations to navigate.
Growing up in Sargodha, I was a child who struggled at school. I remember that during your school days, everyone figured out pretty quickly who was smart and who was not, and those labels stuck with you for your entire stay. I always felt confined within the gates at school, but my mind would travel down all sorts of paths through the course of scientific discovery. I loved the idea that knowledge was not limited, and as long as I could figure out a way to answer a question, I was always inspired to push further into the limits of understanding.
With an inclination towards scientific discovery, I soon realised that if I wanted to escape high school labels and go beyond those four walls, I would have to do everything within my power to chase my dream. I sacrificed play dates in order to study so I could one day get into the Pakistani university of my choice, which I did.
During my Bachelors at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), everything around me continued to inspire me to keep asking questions. However, it was volunteering at a few hospitals that exposed me to the deplorable conditions patients survive under in our country. I also realised that while fields like electrical engineering provided greater job security and money, my passion was towards using engineering to change people’s lives for the better. I found a passion in using artificial intelligence (AI) in medical imaging applications, which have the ability to detect details in medical scans that not even the most trained doctors could see, potentially saving people’s lives.
Once I left NUST, I went for a Master’s program in Medical Imaging and Applications under an Erasmus Mundus program, through which I was able to attend three European universities in France, Italy and Spain, and finish my thesis at Duke University in the US. I also spent my free time working for various medical centres in the Netherlands and France, where I investigated ways to detect life-threatening diseases through the development of smart AI algorithms.
This past year, as I applied for my PhD, I received fully funded admission offers from many prestigious schools across the globe, including the University of Oxford, Harvard University, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, Australian National University, Imperial College London, University College London, and many others. Now, while pursuing my postgraduate studies, I will be working in AI applications for neuroimaging — using technology to understand how to keep the brain healthy, well-functioning and nourished, particularly those suffering from affective disorders and other cognitive impairments.
It is important to state that it is more difficult to find funding as an overseas student, as tuition is much higher, leaving limited scholarships to cover the cost of this higher tuition price tag. However, I remained undeterred and searched for scholarships on the university level, the departmental level, for more global scholarships, for industry funded scholarships, and also funding sources from university research projects in order to secure funding for my education.
I believe that just because someone has never done something or gone somewhere before, does not mean it isn’t possible to change what lies ahead. We always have the ability to forge our own path so we may reach our goal and in turn make that path easier for those to follow. My hope is that my experience will help make this stressful period easier for inquisitive minds in Pakistan interested in graduate studies abroad, hopefully making their journey somewhat of a smoother sail than experienced by those before me. My hope is that as more Pakistani students apply to schools overseas, as they, as well as other countries, see the value these talented students bring to their institutions, in turn prompting states and institutions to provide additional support for such international students.
For all those still wondering why I strongly recommend studying abroad for Pakistani students, it is because I believe immersing yourselves in the education system of a foreign country is the best way to not only gain a great education, but also gain experience and understand different people to enhance your own abilities. All these skills will then seem very attractive to future employers upon your return to Pakistan.
Many students ask me questions about getting into schools abroad, specifically how much test scores matter and what schools look for in international students. At the end of the day, while schools of course want to assess whether you know a certain level of the relevant material, most graduate programs mainly want to know that not only can you learn new information, but that you can apply it in order to create new information. After all, through asking questions you promote the idea that knowledge is not restricted to the classroom, and in reality it has no boundaries.
For others who share a similar passion for experiencing the opportunities other countries have to offer, I would advise a couple of simple things. Keep asking important questions, keep seeking out opportunities that interest you, and keep forging past any obstacles that may come your way. I hope my story can instil hope in others that their dreams are never too big for you to not chase after them, and the idea that through education you gain the ultimate freedom in knowledge, which has no limit.
All photos: Usama Pervaiz