Alumni profile - Bismeh Shafi
“The MA from Queen Mary has allowed me to segue into my field of interest. I am currently working at The Citizens Foundation (TCF), a Pakistan-based NGO that provides education to more than 250,000 under-privileged children across Pakistan.”
What made you choose to study for an MA in Global Development Futures at Queen Mary? Prior to Queen Mary, I had only ever studied in Pakistan. Therefore, when I made the decision to pursue another Masters, the location and an international experience were important considerations as well. Hence, I began searching for courses in London and New York. Of course, even within these two cities, there were a multitude of options to explore.
Almost instantly, Queen Mary stood out to me for a number of reasons; firstly, the School of Geography at Queen Mary is highly ranked and well reputed. Also, what attracted me was the location and the campus; a self-contained campus that would allow me to live an on-campus university life, and yet have the experience of living in one of the greatest and most diverse cities in the world. In addition to these factors, within the stream of Human Geography, there were a number of courses offered by the school that appealed to me, all of which I felt would aid my understanding and help me gain a varied perspective on social development; and choosing one to apply for was a challenge. I eventually chose Global Development, as I felt it would help provide a holistic understanding of development issues around the world.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable? What modules did you enjoy learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? The structure of the course was vastly different from my previous studies, and I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that it offered: each module was grounded in theory, but also allowed for research into each individual area of interest. So, while I based some of my research, and also my dissertation on Pakistan, for some modules I chose to study issues prevalent in other parts of the world. This really enhanced my understanding of development issues at the macro level. Coming from a country like Pakistan, it can be challenging to understand poverty in the developed world; however, the course taught me that inequality and poverty are prevalent across the globe; and indeed, even in the “developed” world, inequality is on the rise. As someone who had not studied human geography before, I also really enjoyed learning about how human geography has evolved, and delving into concepts like space and place.
Can you describe your career path up to date and your current role? Before pursuing a master in Global Development from Queen Mary, I had experience of working in the corporate sector only. I had worked for about 2 years in the Supply Chain and HR departments of international and local corporates in Pakistan including Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs) companies and large banks. The MA from Queen Mary has allowed me to segue into my field of interest. I am currently working at The Citizens Foundation (TCF), a Pakistan-based NGO that provides education to more than 250,000 under-privileged children across Pakistan. I work at the cross-section of Education and Human Resource, where as Manager, Organization Development, I handle projects that are aimed at improving the quality of Teachers and Education Managers at TCF. The scope of work is quite large and varies from developing and implementing capacity building plans to surveying and developing compensation policies specifically aimed at retaining teachers of the highest quality. One of the most interesting parts of my role is that it requires me to have a thorough understanding of academics and operations at the school-level and has given me the opportunity to hone my skills in an area previously unknown to me.
Can you describe what a typical working day looks like for you? I feel very fortunate because there is a lot of variety in my work. We are still in the phase of designing policies and programs for the cohort of teachers and education managers at TCF, and therefore, I feel like I am working on something new each day. Some days I spend researching best practices and brainstorming ideas on a range of activities from teacher hiring to capacity building. Other days, I could be holding feedback sessions with various stakeholders and running orientation sessions for our programs, and then there are days that are completely consumed with analysing teacher data and developing dashboards to present it. Often, my work requires me to visit the schools as well, which are spread across some of the remotest parts of Pakistan. These visits always make for interesting experiences, as one gets to meet the children, and see the impact the organisation has on the ground level.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? Prior to coming to Queen Mary, I had studied business and worked in the corporate sector. I was always interested in development, but like many other young women growing up in Pakistan in the early 2000s, studying business and working in the corporate sector felt like the easy and safe, and sometimes only option. Queen Mary allowed me the opportunity to explore a field I was always interested in. The modules were structured in a way that provided a theoretical grounding in each subject, following which we were free to conduct research on that subject in any part of the world. Such a fluid structure allowed me to really study all kinds of developmental concerns in a number of different geographical contexts, thereby enabling me to expand my perspective. This knowledge has helped me upon my return to Pakistan; for instance, my understanding of poverty and increasing informality in the world has allowed me to better understand the socio-economic dynamics of the students and teachers, which has further helped me design programs grounded in their environments. Moreover, changing careers after a few years in a certain field can be quite challenging; however, soon after completing the course in Global Development, I was offered a position in one of the largest and most well reputed development organisations in Pakistan.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? My advice to young students and recent graduates would be to spend some time working and exploring career options before deciding upon a field for further study (if they want to study further). For instance, I pursued my first masters soon after my bachelors’ degree ended; however, later I realised that I wanted to study and work in a completely different field. I was lucky enough to be able to pursue another masters’ course and eventually ended up in the field of my interest, but not everyone has that luxury. Some people are fortunate enough to find their way into jobs and fields that they love, but for the rest of us, I feel it is important to explore different career options and see what we enjoy and where we excel before deciding upon a final career path.
What is the most exciting thing about what you do? I am very fortunate to genuinely love my job and respect the organisation I work for. It is a wonderful feeling to work for an organisation that you feel is having a positive impact on the world. Teachers and principals at TCF come from the same communities as the children and live in the same neighbourhoods; therefore in addition to providing education to the under-privileged, TCF also indirectly impacts the lives of its teachers and principals, and is uniquely placed to bring about cultural and social change in the communities it operates in.
It is always exciting to visit the schools and communities and see this social impact first-hand. There are many instances where I have heard stories from teachers and principals who say that no one in their family was allowed to work or study, and how they had to struggle to gain permission to do so; and now their families are so thrilled, that their younger siblings are all studying and many of them will be pursuing careers for themselves. Such stories are always heart-warming and make going to work every day a lot more fun.
What was special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments? I spent a wonderful year at Queen Mary, and choosing a few memorable moments is hard to do. However, some of my favourite memories revolve around my on-campus flat. As I was the only one amongst my friends and classmates who was living on-campus, friends and acquaintances would keep dropping-in all day, between classes, before they headed home for the day, and sometimes when they couldn’t find a quiet spot in the library! Often, I would hear a tap on my bedroom window, and I would look out to find someone I knew stopping by to say hello. Of course, this being university, the taps could be heard all times of the day and night! They really helped me cultivate strong friendships over the course of a single year, and I am pleased to have made some life-long friends in the process.
Do you have a favourite spot on campus? If so, where is it and why? As an international student, I was lucky enough to be provided with on-campus accommodation. The Queen Mary campus is right next to Regents Canal and my flat and bedroom window overlooked the canal. Although, there were many wonderful spots on campus where I have very fond memories, my favourite spot was right outside the canal; where one could just sit down with a book and read, or relax with some friends. In the summers, I would take my breakfast out and eat it by the bank of the canal, watching park-goers on the other side of the canal out on their morning run.
Do you have any role models that you look up to, both inside and outside of your field? There is no dearth of organisations and individuals who have had a disproportionately large impact in the world of development. While there have been many individuals who I look up to, I feel like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on a myriad of initiatives that are creating a lot of positive impact globally.
Closer to home, there are a number of different organisations in Pakistan that I am inspired by. Organisations like the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation which carries out 1,100 free dialysis per day, the Aman Foundation which works in education and health to create social and economic equality, and of course TCF, the organisation that I work for, which are all tirelessly working to reduce social and economic inequality in Pakistan.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Bismeh or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.