Rising up to the Challenge
Hana Shams Ahmed
There is very little good news in the media when we talk about the Chittagong Hill Tracts and its people. This ethnic community is probably the worst off in political and social terms in Bangladesh. Although it's true that education in Bangladesh for many Bangladeshis themselves is a luxury, the adibashi community have, over the years, been marginalised by political parties and mostly ignored by the civil society. It was not until last year that mobile network was allowed to penetrate the three districts of the region. Very few personal success stories come out of this region. Amit Chakma is one such a story. One of four siblings, Amit has recently been selected to become the President of The University of Western Ontario in Canada. He is currently the Vice-President and Provost and Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He was honoured as a Fellow at the Canadian Academy of Engineering in 2008. He became a Canadian Who's Who in 2000 and received the Canada's Top 40 Under 40 Award in 1998. He received his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of British Columbia in 1987 and completed his M.A.Sc. in Chemical Engineering from the University of British Columbia in 1984.
Amit Chakma spoke about his academic success despite the many limitations he faced in his country and his ties with his homeland in an email interview with Hana Shams Ahmed of The Star Magazine.
You come from a community of ethnic minorities whose education is the most neglected in our country. How difficult was it for you to finish your higher education in Bangladesh and apply abroad?
I was fortunate to have parents who have instilled the value and the need for higher education in me, right from my childhood. My father was a visionary man who chose not to resettle in the then remote areas of CHT after the Kaptai dam flooded our land. He chose to stay near the Kaptai and Rangamati towns. This made it possible for me to pursue my education. With this decision made and with parents whose highest priority was the education of their children, the next steps of my journey were not any more difficult than what it would have been for any middle class Bangladeshi. However, I was one of the few fortunate ones from the ethnic communities. I had studied at Rangamati Government High School and Dhaka College. During my time, we had many dedicated teachers for whom teaching was not a job but a calling. I am grateful to them all.
I know of many of my contemporaries who were bright but either did not have access to quality education, or simply could not afford the cost of paying for their education. I know that access to quality education continues to be a major barrier to everyone.
During the seventies, many countries friendly to Bangladesh including India and Russia used to offer scholarships to Bangladesh. Early in 1977, I qualified for two such scholarships, the first one was to study Forestry in India and the second to study mining engineering in Russia. I preferred to go to India to study Forestry, but a bureaucratic intervention turned my fourth position on the merit list into the 8th position, simply by switching the Bangla four into English 8. There were only five scholarships available and I was therefore left out. As I was planning to go to Russia, there was another competition for a scholarship to study at the Algerian Petroleum Institute. Knowing that some of the top students from my class were planning to apply, I sought the help of Rajmata Binita Roy, then advisor to President Zia. With her help I was able to secure the scholarship to go to Algeria. Without these scholarships, I would not have been able to go overseas for higher studies. I believe that education is the most effective means of creating a level playing field between those who have the resources and others who do not, it is very important to make scholarships and bursaries available to the less privileged so that they are given an equal opportunity to apply their talents.
What are your plans with the University of Western Ontario now that you have become its President?
The University of Western Ontario is one of Canada's oldest and prominent universities. It has 30000 students. My long-term goal is to build its reputation beyond Canada and move it towards becoming one of the world's leading universities. I would like Western's graduates to be broadly educated so that they can become leaders and global citizens of tomorrow. Such global citizens will not only have a command of core bodies of knowledge in their academic disciplines, and who will also possess the leadership qualities needed in an increasingly technologically savvy and yet socially and culturally inter-connected, complex global village.
What do you think is the biggest barrier Adibashis face in trying to get into a public university in Bangladesh? How can it be overcome?
There are three major barriers. First is access to high quality education at the primary, secondary and college levels. Second is financial. These two barriers are common to everyone in Bangladesh. The third barrier is unique to the adibashi community. It has to do with self-respect. Due to ill-conceived policies of successive governments, many adibashis have been made to feel like second or third class citizens facing blatant discrimination in all spheres of their life. In some cases, they do not even feel secure about their lives. Their livelihood is not secure as their lands can be grabbed at the whim of the local powerful settlers, tacitly backed by state institutions.
You asked me how these barriers can be overcome. First I'll focus on the adibashi specific issue. It is very important to put an end to all discriminatory practices so that they can take pride in their citizenship and build their self-respect and confidence to become valuable citizens of the country. In addition, governments should make education a priority in its many development programmes for the adibashi people and create needs based scholarships for the students.
Finally, Bangladesh should recognise that human resources are its most important resource base. To that end, all concerned should work hard to improve the quality of its schools and colleges across the country. Teachers should be provided with decent salaries and the highest standards should be applied in their recruitment. The status of teaching as a noble profession needs to be restored. This is a tall order but it must be tackled for the sake of the country.
The Adibashi community is slowly losing its language as they are not taught in most schools Adibashi children attend. How important is it for schools to teach Adibashi children to write in their language?
This is a significant challenge. It is important to retain one's heritage including language and culture to the extent possible. However, I do not believe that the interests of the adibashi people can be served by educating their children in their native languages. This is a very dangerous proposition with unintended negative consequences. To prosper in Bangladesh and in the world, adibashis need to master Bangla and English first. Native languages can be taught separately through cultural institutes and other organisations. At most those languages that are sufficiently developed can be taught in the school as a language course.
I find it ironic that our elites who are the proponents of educating adibashi students in their native languages actually send their children to English medium schools. What is good for the goose must also be good for the gander.
How is Canada as a place for Bangladeshi immigrants to succeed?
Canada is a great country. It is a country that has embraced multiculturalism as its official policy. In my view, it is the best country in the world. In such an environment, I believe that success depends very much on the individuals. I have seen many Bangladeshi immigrants of diverse background and various age groups succeed. I have also seen a small number to struggle. There are certain core values that are essential for success. Honesty, hard work, dedication and determination are some of these values. These are core values of many Bangladeshis. Those with these core values will succeed according to their respective abilities. Obviously, someone with an international quality of education with proficiency in the English language will have a better chance of success than someone without. People with professional backgrounds such as engineers, business graduates have greater prospect of securing jobs. Younger people tend to be more adaptable and they have more time to adjust to their new environment. They will have greater opportunity for success. The most successful ones are those who come to study in Canada at any level and opportunities available to them are no different from those who are born here.
Do you have any plans of sharing your academic experience in Bangladesh?
There are many professors and others in Bangladesh who are very familiar with the academic world in North America. The challenge for the country is to utilise their knowledge and experience. However, if the opportunity presents itself, I would love to share my experience and ideas about education in Bangladesh.
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