Story of the Amazing Acumen Fellow Mashall Chaudhri-Waliany

Everything I am doing today began when I went through a mental crisis. I had a standard job in the development sector after I graduated from college. In a sense I was ascending the ladder of what I was supposed to be doing in this field. I was ticking the boxes. I graduated from a fantastic college in the States, I moved to Vietnam, I did a fellowship and worked for an NGO there. In college, all my internships had been very field oriented – very hands on work, learning about what’s happening regarding social issues in Pakistan and generally Asia.

After Vietnam, I moved back to Pakistan and started working for a social enterprise which was essentially a community organization. We sold water purification capsules in very low-income neighbourhoods. We set up offices in Lyari and Machar Colony. I was the pilot manager and later, operations director. That is when my internal crisis happened. I really wasn’t seeing impact in my work. At all. I felt like it was a lie. I felt like yes, someone like me with good intentions and a great education was doing well-meaning work – but what was really happening? Nothing. We were going through the motions of “helping” but nothing fundamentally was really changing.

I decided to take a break.
I took a break and decided to study mathematics. I found a tutor. I taught during the day and studied math with my tutor in the evenings. I stopped having a “career” and just studied. I went everyday just to study and look at stuff. No plans for future. Sometimes I would panic and wonder where was this going? What was my career going to be? But mostly it was just open-ended study. It was learning for the sake of learning. It was pure joyous exploration of math. It was an epiphany. It was congruent. I felt like this is where I was supposed to be at this moment at this time. I was really happy. Looking back, I think I was essentially looking for a mentor and a guide and I found that in my tutor. He taught me that it was okay to just want to learn things for the sake of learning- for the pure joy of it. His entire study has wall-to-wall books and diagrams. I was surrounded by knowledge and when I would hit a wall in an equation or a problem he would say something like “well, to figure that out, we must first consider this…” and then pull out a book – or two, or five – and I would spend the next three days reading and trying to understand and connect the dots.
I just loved it. It changed my whole thinking.

My tutor and I started to discuss why wasn’t learning like this for everyone? This mood, this vibe, that it’s okay to get stuck and let’s have a look and understand things not just for math but for any subject! He taught me to look at everything from the perspective of history. So the next step I took in life was totally personal, totally selfish. I tried to bring into the world what I most wanted for myself. I want other people to feel what I felt and rapidly tried to figure out how I could do that? That is how Reading Room Project started. That is not where it is. But that is how it started. It’s a learning lab – we have coaches who encourage critical thinking and guide students in how to become self-learners. A space where students can feel free to just have a look at something, to discover what they love and get all the tools and guidance they need to learn more about it.

It’s a grave privilege to set up something like this, to try and change the lives of people through education. It’s scary, and most days we don’t know the path ahead, but we have a plan and we’re putting one foot in front of the other to try and make it happen.”

Her story originally appeared here!

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