BEYOND PAPER: PLANTING THE SEEDS OF PURSUIT
An interview with Jaffar Abbas
Conducted by Ali Tariq, Talah Imam, Mahnoor Abdullah
Ali: So, Jaffar, currently you’re the President of NUST Environment Club. What inspired you to fight for the environment?
Well, that’s kind of a long story, but I’ll shorten it: when I was a kid, I had asthma, and asthma was mainly caused by the (pollution in) cities I used to live in. Dad was in the army, so Lahore and Karachi mainly. That’s where it got triggered, and because of asthma, I was unable to breathe and the air was pretty polluted. So as I grew up, I realized that a lot of my growth was hampered; I wasn’t allowed to take part in sports and stuff, and it kind of made me realize that the environment’s polluted, gotta do something about it, so that other people don’t suffer like I did when I grew up.
Ali: How has university life changed you generally? In your three years here, in what ways do you think you’ve contributed that has helped you grow or push yourself?
Now you’ve made me feel like I’m old! (laughs)
Ali: Well, it’s the pedestal you get for being interviewed I guess…
Well, when I joined NUST, tou, us se pehle, I was the Head Boy of my last school – St. Mary’s Academy. So, as soon as I came here, I don’t know what happened, but I thought I should be someone who should just go into societies. But in my first year, I didn’t go into any of them. I was like “I’m gonna focus on my GPA”, since I prioritize my degree. Most people don’t choose Environmental Engineering, but I chose it since I had a passion for it since eighth grade, in O Level.
I really wanted to go for this, and I channeled everything there. I didn’t even apply for foreign universities, I only applied for NUST, and I only aimed for this department. So, once I got in, I prioritized studies, and Alhamdullilah after two semesters, I got a 2.74 CGPA, and I realized that that did not work out well. (asks Talah) You’re from SMME?
Talah: No, SEECS.
Oh, then you guys are smart! I’m not! (laughs) Tou, I had a really good score in the NET, and I thought I could carry that forward, but I didn’t. So after that, I decided to join societies and I realized that personal growth is also important. That really kind of helped me grow and realize what my major aim was.
Basically, I broadened my horizons and that has helped me grow in a lot of ways. And, being the President right now of NEC, I can credit a lot of societies and experiences in interviews that gave me hope that I CAN broaden my horizons.
Ali: So, you’ve gained exposure and contacts with all these societies. You work in a lot of places, and obviously, everyone has a different outlook on how they want to approach university life. Do you feel that you balance your work with your social life as well?
I feel like you have to. If you focus on something and make it something, that’s very important, I mean that’s all good and I won’t judge you for that, but I feel like if I gain a post, I’m volunteering for it in NUST. And I need to realize that everyone else is volunteering as well. I shouldn’t try to be more stern, and I shouldn’t be someone who says that this is the end of the world, or that right now, this is the most important thing for me. Because it’s not. I mean, I’ll graduate, and I’ll have other priorities. I need to focus on my social skills as well, and I need to realize that having fun with other people is also as important as getting the job done. If you balance that properly, then you can have a really good university experience.
Ali: Many people still feel really insecure about their abilities, and they feel that if they push themselves a little out of their comfort zones, they’ll break. What are, for you, the ingredients for making hard work impactful?
I’ve never really thought of myself as impactful, but what I realized before getting to the point where I am right now was that everyone in life has a higher calling, and sometimes you get into a degree that you don’t want to. I was lucky enough to get into something I am passionate about. For example, you’re a person who’s good at writing, and you pursue content writing alongside your degree. I’m assuming you’re an EE student…
Ali: No, SE.
Oh yeah, darmian wala. Let’s suppose other than coding, you feel passionate about content writing. You could pursue that as well, alongside getting a degree. It could be a side hobby that could get you a career in the future. You go into a software company, and they might need a focal person for content writing. At the end of the day, if people don’t like you for who you are, and if you feel like you’re comfortable that way, as long as it’s not hurting other people and as long as it’s doing good for the world and your mental health, you should pursue that and it’ll help you get your passions and find your way in life, because at the end of the day, we’re all at crossroads on most occasions, and we have to find out which road to take.
Ali: I think recently you opened a support group…
How do you know that? How do you guys know that? Yes, I did!
Ali: Could you elaborate about that?
I organized a mental health seminar around a year ago in RIMMS, NUST, in which we brought in a suicide survivor, and he ended up telling his story and people were very motivated. So, we realized that people needed a safe space. C3A is nice and all, but you need a support group of people who are on the same level of mindfulness.
So, we decided to start this support group with the name of “HONUST”, and it’s going to be leading to – hopefully – a club-like structure. We’re going to have support groups in the library, and we’re trying to get them affiliated with real psychologists. Like, for example, Ma’am Salma is someone who started the project “Nardban”. We’re going to be the liaison between the psychologists and the students in making a very honest structure with certain ground rules and everything, so the problem can be easily talked about. When I started the support group I was in a very bad place, and I felt like I was sad, and I am a kid who’s always been very happy in my life. I realized that sadness can hit anyone.
Ali: I mean depression is something that appears to not have an explanation for it sometimes, and you have a sprint of sadness coming over you. There’s no way to explain it to people.
Exactly. We’re in a society where a lot of people are discriminated for their emotions, and a support group like that could help.
Ali: There’s a lot of people who feel like having to put a mask in front of society.
You have to fake yourself and that’s what I’ve talked about before, that you don’t have to fake yourself.
Ali: You want people to open up about their feelings and feel better about themselves.
Exactly. The first step is acceptance, and the second step is talking about it; maybe to themselves, or maybe to other people who are on the same track as them.
Ali: It’s just people understanding that whatever you’re feeling isn’t irrational, it’s just human.
Coming back to your Presidency: obviously, when you lead a society, you have to lead lots of teams, lots of people. Everyone deals with leadership in a different way. Some people consider themselves to be very embracive. I think that’s more on what you’re going on. What kind of leader would you consider yourself to be? How do you put your foot down on things, or guide people towards a certain objective?
I don’t. I don’t force anyone. Let’s suppose you’re my President and I’m an Executive. I would like a President who I can talk to and who I can joke around with, but when the time comes for them to tell me a task, I will respect them as well. So, I’ve created – or what I’m trying to pull off – in NEC is an environment in which you can talk to the President, you can complain about your problems to the President, but you don’t have to be forced to do your task. You will do your task on your own.
We’re making environmental leaders. We had an entire pledge that was documented by UNEP (United Nations Environment Program), and we started it in the council orientation that whatever you’re doing, you’re volunteering. We’re not going to force you to do things; you’re gonna do them yourself. There are no mandatory shares in NEC. There is no stuff like ‘event pe apne aana hai’. If you’re not coming it’s all on you. But if you want to come, you’re doing something for the environment, so I’m trying to create an environment in the Environment Club in which people are actually more accepting of their responsibilities.
Ali: And I think that’s very important. To show yourself as human, you know.
Now we’d like to ask you a few rapid-fire questions.
Okay, how quickly will I have to respond?
Ali: Well, it’s a rapid fire, so the first thing that comes to your mind.
I’m a very weird person, so be careful!
Ali: This is exactly why we’re doing this, haha.
Let’s start then: what is one of the things you would put on your bucket-list?
Skydiving. My dad used to skydive.
Ali: Favorite cartoon character, and why?
Spiderman, but he’s not a cartoon character – he’s a hero!
Ali: Because with great power comes…
Great responsibility…. and do I have to answer why? He’s awesome! I looked up to him when I was sick as a kid. That’s why.
Ali: I really liked him. He seemed like a superhero character that was very human. Most superheroes are like gods you know.
He was approachable. He was a kid that had problems, and I was a kid that had problems.
Ali: Who do you admire the most?
The first person that comes to mind is my dad, so my dad.
Ali: Dream job?
Recently I got a call from the UN for a meeting, and I really want to work there in policymaking. Become a climate-change activist.
(collective gasp of amazement at this minor flex)
Ali: Wow, that’s exciting! Describe yourself in three words.
Weird. Spontaneous. Capable of thinking of very big words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Ali: One item you could never live without?
I guess my phone, sadly.
Ali: Any pet-peeves?
Some people are condescending! When people assume that they are better than you in things. Even if you are, you don’t have to show it.
Ali: It’s the passive-aggressiveness that’s the worst thing about it. You know they are being condescending towards you, but you can’t say anything because they aren’t being overt about it. Like
dude, just talk to me!
I know! Like, you are a student. I am a student. What’s the problem?
Ali: Two things you want to change about yourself.
I have a habit of making jokes in very weird situations.
Mahnoor: Oh no, you don’t want to change that.
Ali: Okay, I regret asking this question.
Haha let me explain: there are certain situations where you have to be a little more serious. I won’t change my jokes, and I won’t change my personality, but for example, I have to give a presentation for a class assignment and I crack a very inappropriate joke. I should not have done that. I got a very bad grade after that. The class laughed, but I got a 12/100. Second thing is that I might want to stop talking about myself. Some people assume I’m narcissistic, when I’m not – I’m just being honest.
Ali: I guess you just speak your mind, and people don’t like that.
Talah: If you combine it with being funny, it’s not really narcissistic.
Thank you! You understand that, people don’t.
Ali: And I guess the final question: Dream place for retirement?
My Mamoo went to this place. I forgot the name but it’s near Norway. It’s an island to the north of Norway, where you can see the northern lights, and it’s next to the North Pole. It’s very cold, and the temperatures are always negative, but it’s a very beautiful place. Like northern lights all the time. You can’t live there permanently because of how cold it is, so I guess I’d live in Norway and keep going there.
(Parts of this interview have been edited for sake of conciseness and clarity.)