By Adeeb Chowdhury
While describing some memorable moments during her childhood, Beenish Shahzad recalled that she had gotten into a fight with her principal during her first week of school. Her principal had said something she didn’t quite agree with, and instead of simply nodding along, Shahzad stood her ground and made her thoughts abundantly clear. Although she laughed about it now as she thought back to that incident, that moment actually serves as an interesting illustration of the traits that would define much of her life to come – her willpower, resolve and a sense of stubbornness that would get her exactly where she needed to go.
Shahzad was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, and raised in Ahmedal, a village in the Punjab province of the nation. She described herself as being very close to her family, which consisted of her parents, grandparents and five siblings, among whom she was the third child.
“A lot of my childhood was spent with my grandfather in our family’s farm, where I’d go almost every single day,” Shahzad said. “We had a lot of cattle, and I’d spend my time playing with cows and baby goats or collecting mushrooms.”
After her grandfather passed away when she was nine years old, she shifted more toward academics and schoolwork.
“In my village, there were very few schools,” Shahzad said. “And the ones that were there, didn’t exactly have the most opportunities. There was no college in the village, and some of the teachers in the local schools were inexperienced. Fortunately, I was able to attend a private school, which was the best school in the village.”
Despite the lack of opportunities in Ahmedal, Shahzad took advantage of every academic resource and extracurricular platform she could find. She kept herself busy by engaging in various sports, such as marathons and badminton, as well as writing and debate competitions. However, in her school, most extracurriculars were a once-a-year event – such as an annual debate competition – as opposed to year-round activities like those in the United States.
A pivotal moment in her life was the board exams she took in fifth grade, which all the students in her district took part in. Shahzad was the second-highest scorer in her entire district and became the first person in her school to receive a scholarship. This motivated her to continue achieving at a high level, and she committed herself to academic excellence throughout the rest of her career as a student, becoming a regular top scorer in her class.
Another source of motivation for Shahzad was her eldest sister, Komal.
“Komal is really my role model, and I’ve looked up to her since I was young,” Shahzad said. “She’s a gold medalist in her finance major during both her Bachelor’s and her Master’s, and she has a great job right now. She’s one of the people that genuinely inspire me.”
Accompanying Shahzad’s reputation as an excellent student was her “stubbornness.” One of her defining qualities is her steely determination and ability to stand up for herself, even to authority figures. She noted several moments during her childhood when she openly disagreed with teachers and school officials and made her own opinion clear, debating them in a respectful manner.
“If I think someone is wrong about something, I won’t hide that,” Shahzad said. “I’ll make my thoughts be heard.”
When Shahzad was 18, she moved to the city of Rawalpindi, where her life dramatically shifted.
The village where she had grown up was known to be deeply conservative. Most women and many men did not end up attending university, because the emphasis was on getting married and having children. This social pressure was especially exerted on women, who often did not have much of a say in the matter, as most marriages were arranged by their parents.
“Although my village was very conservative, my family had their own values,” Shahzad said. “My father encouraged me to pursue my career and make my own decisions.”
In Rawalpindi, where she attended university, Shahzad felt that her whole perspective on life shifted in many ways. She was exposed to the “real world”, meeting people of various backgrounds and learning more about the way the world truly worked. It was also her first time attending a co-ed institution.
Shahzad also started a job at an institute for special education, where she worked with students with various disabilities, ranging from hearing impairments to developmental disorders. Her experience working at this institution was eye-opening and humbling, inspiring her to further pursue a degree in psychology. During her university years, she also helped establish a local Community Service Society, of which she was the vice president.
Professor Ume Siddiqa, one of Shahzad’s instructors, noted her constant drive to use all resources available to her.
“Beenish is one of her own kind,” Siddiqua said. “The kind of student who is always passionate and always working hard. She is the kind of girl who sure knows what she wants in life and would work day and night to make sure she achieves it.”
Shahzad has also been involved with the organization Acts of Kindness, which hosts a project called “Medkhidmat” (meaning “to serve”). This project, which has treated over 40,000 patients, involves setting up free medical camps with teams of doctors, psychologists and other healthcare professionals in various regions in Pakistan. Shahzad has worked with teams of psychologists at such medical camps across the nation.
“It was a very valuable experience to be able to work as part of Medkhidmat,” Shahzad said. “A lot of our patients were people living below the poverty line, and it opened my eyes to the conditions they live in. I was happy that they felt comfortable talking to us about their lives and the issues they face, and I’m glad I was able to help in any way I can.”
The founder of Acts of Kindness, Ateeq Afridi, emphasized Shahzad’s genuine willingness to serve her community.
“Beenish Shahzad has been working with us for years now, and it had been a great experience so far,” Afridi said. “She’s been an active volunteer throughout whether it comes to participating in the event or spreading awareness about it. She is dedicated to serve the society, and make a difference. We have seen her grow throughout these years.”
During a campaign about the usage of plastic bags, Shahzad met a girl who told her she would be a good fit for an exciting opportunity known as the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (UGrad), which sponsored university students across the world in attending a semester in the United States. Immediately intrigued, Shahzad applied in 2019 and became one of the 140 students from Pakistan selected among over 16,000 applicants. The selection process was based on academic excellence, leadership and communication skills, and a statement of purpose, which Shahzad used to discuss her interest in social work and community service.
“It was a dream come true for me to study in the United States,” Shahzad said. “I found out I would be attending SUNY Plattsburgh about a month before I came here, and I spent that whole month going through the university’s Instagram and YouTube pages because I was so excited.”
Her family and community was equally delighted to hear the news.
“My parents are really proud that I got selected,” Shahzad said. “People in my village are excited too, and they ask my parents when I’ll be coming back. I hope me being selected makes it easier for other girls in my community to apply and be allowed to go.”
Once in Plattsburgh, Shahzad immediately took the initiative to become involved on campus. She joined the Women in Leadership Society and the Academic Affairs Board of the Student Association. Her work with the SA has taught her a lot about efficient communication and organizational structure, and it has inspired her to start a Student Association at her own university in Pakistan once she returns.
“I’ve learned the value of proper communication between students and higher authorities, and I think the SA is a great channel of communication that accomplishes that,” Shahzad said. “I’m planning to build an organization like that back home.”
Shahzad has also been involved in professional research work in the field of psychology, and has been published in a scientific journal. In 2020, her research was published in the International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare, on the topic of “psychometric development and validation of ostracism experience scale (OES) across samples of young adults in Pakistan.” In simple terms, she used objective measures to assess the psychological effects of social isolation on young adults.
“It was overwhelming to have my research be published in a reputable journal,” Shahzad said. “It definitely motivated me to continue in the field of research.”
Shahzad is working as a research assistant for a SUNY Plattsburgh professor. She currently cannot provide details of the project due to the discreet nature of the work being done.
Another goal of hers in Plattsburgh is to represent her country in a more authentic way.
“I know there’s a lot of paranoia and fear in America about a country like Pakistan,” Shahzad said. “But I want to show that the media’s portrayal of my country is completely wrong, and I want to show the true face of Pakistan. Even if I change a few people’s minds about my country, I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.”
One such moment occurred when Shahzad delivered a presentation about Pakistan to a team of Girl Scouts and their parents, and one of their parents emailed the Global Education Office voicing their appreciation for how much they learned about the country.
Ruba Khan, a fellow exchange student from Pakistan currently studying at SUNY Plattsburgh, celebrated her own and Shahzad’s dedication to positive representation of their country.
“Beenish is amazing, and working with her has been a joy,” Khan said. “I love that we can help improve people’s perception of our country here.”
Looking to the future, Shahzad said she wants to pursue more experience in social work and helping those who need it most.
“In Islam, helping other people is a sacred duty,” Shahzad said. “It’s one of my most important priorities in life.”
Shahzad will be leaving Plattsburgh in about a week and a half from today. Looking back on her time in the U.S., she is confident that she can take what she learned back to Pakistan and continue serving her community however she can.