Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mariya Ilyas wins Davis Projects for Peace Prize

Mariya Ilyas (SJP '08/Bowdoin '13) teaching math to third grade students at the Al-Imtiaz Academy in Abbottabad, Pakistan last summer.

Q&A with Mariya Ilyas (SJP '08/Bowdoin '13) 

Why do you want to start a journalism program in Pakistan?

I wanted to start a journalism program at the Al-Imtiaz Academy for a number of reasons. First of all, I love journalism and have loved it ever since I was first introduced to it. When I moved to the United States at the age of eight from Pakistan, I was new to everything and I remember joining the journalism class without knowing what it was. When I learned that journalism is the true essence and spirit of democracy—for democracy cannot exist without a free press—I fell in love with the craft. 

I am convinced that had I still been in Pakistan, I never would have discovered my passion for journalism. This is why I want to go back to my birthplace and start a journalism program: I want the students there to have the same opportunity I did. Because most Pakistani schools do not have extracurricular activities, students do not have opportunities to engage in interests other than the subjects they are required to study. I want students to learn about journalism and its power in helping provide a voice to the people, because frankly, journalism is important in any society in ensuring peace.

What did you accomplish there last year?

Last summer, I received the competitive Preston Public Interest Career Fund to pursue my teaching internship with the Al-Imtiaz Academy. I got to work with all age groups, which was pretty neat. I taught numbers and the English and Urdu alphabet to the nursery kids in June; conducted a ‘blogging project’ with 9th and 10th graders in July; and taught mathematics to 3rd through 7th graders in August. Students who participated in the blogging project wrote personal narrative pieces in English that are now published online. At the end of my internship, I also donated a laptop to the school so students could have an alternative source of power (battery) during power outages, which the Pakistani government conducts to conserve energy four times a day.

My experience at the Al-Imtiaz Academy transformed me. The internship and the students I worked with changed my outlook on life. They made me realize how good it feels to give back, and gave a stronger sense of my roots. Because of this, I didn’t want to be just a short excerpt in the students’ lives, someone who came for three months and left, never to be heard from again. I wanted to be a greater part of their lives. The yearning to go back, combined with my interest in journalism, led me to seek funding for how I could return to the Al-Imtiaz Academy and start a high school newspaper.

What do you hope to accomplish this year? 

This summer, I hope to teach students the art of journalism, everything from interviewing to writing different types of articles; from photojournalism to layout design; from ethics of reporting to the importance of objectivity. The students will have the opportunity to set up their own newsroom, report and write articles, and publish their very first newspaper. With the Davis grant, I will be able to purchase five laptops, two digital cameras, a laser printer, printing and school supplies, as well as a web camera. In addition, the grant will relieve participating students of transportation costs, as the Academy serves low-income families. The students will take a field trip to Islamabad to see the newsroom of one of the only two English newspapers in the nation. I am really looking forward to this summer because I am inspired by journalism and I hope that my students, too, can be inspired.

Will your experiences from SJP help you in any way?

Most definitely! In fact, I am planning for this project using my experience from SJP 2008. Instead of 10 days, the journalism program at the Al-Imtiaz Academy will span over 3 months. The hope is that this initial intense “camp” will enable students and the training teachers to ensure that the program continues after I leave. A lot of the lessons I teach the students will emulate those I learned at SJP, for example that “journalism is telling the truth about the world.” I also plan to teach students how to write movie reviews after watching a movie together. During SJP, we visited The New York Times building and got to speak with some of the editors; similarly, I’ve planned a field trip to Islamabad to visit Dawn, one of the only English newspapers in all of Pakistan. I will have my SJP experience in mind throughout the entire planning and the execution of my summer project. 

At the end of the summer, I hope to stay in touch with my students; just like the SJP counselors did with us. I won’t be helping them apply to college per se, but I do hope to serve as a support system for them. I want to stay in touch, offer advice whenever possible, and just be a listening ear for them—just like SJP counselor Chanakya Sethi '07 continues to do so with me. SJP has been very important in my life and even though I haven’t been able to return as a counselor yet, I certainly do hope to one day.  

Mariya Ilyas is a sophomore at Bowdoin College and a 2008 alumna of the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program.

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