The surgeon took a deep breath and said, "You might be able to walk eventually, but not without crutches, and that's the best-case scenario!" The young officer had asked for the unvarnished truth. He had just regained consciousness and was beginning to realise that it was not just his body that had been badly broken. Morphine started to kick in and brought a flood of memories… First day at school, two years younger than everyone else, not fully understanding what child prodigy meant, but feeling exhilarated. At 17, he was the youngest software engineer at IBM when he decided to join Pakistan Army’s officer training programme. He was told that he was far too “academic and intellectual" to be a soldier. But he had a dream… and six years on, his dream seemed to have become reality. He had a distinguished career and was tipped to be a general. As the painkillers began to wear off, he started to realise that while his body had survived, his dream had not.
The Assistant Principal at a large FE College (in the North of England) cast a cursory eye over his CV, then scanned him from head to toe and declared, “You’re wasting your time applying for jobs in education - try something else”. The former army officer had recently emigrated to the UK and was hoping that his qualifications, achievements, and experience of teaching in Pakistan’s top-ranking university would be enough to find a teaching job in the UK. The Assistant Principal’s decree came as a shock, but the young man had learnt never to give up. So, he kept accumulating rejection letters from a plethora of educational organisations. He finally got a break and started teaching pensioners how to use computers. He was over the moon to start teaching again. Moreover, this job paid £6.50 per hour, a whole one pound more than the bank call centre where he regularly got abuse from customers, often because they were annoyed with the bank but occasionally for his accent too.
A few years later, he had risen to his first executive role in a medium-sized private further and higher education provider. He was chairing the interview panel for a senior manager post when the same Assistant Principal entered the room as a candidate. Remaining oblivious of this reversal of fortune, the Assistant Principal worked for him for some years before retiring.
A few more years passed, and he continued to rise in the world of private education. However, his heart was no longer in the game. He wanted to make a bigger impact on the lives of his students, local communities, and especially those with the fewest opportunities. A traumatic event in his personal life triggered introspection and serious consideration about the meaning and purpose of (his) life. He resigned from a lucrative position and took up a research role at his alma mater for a fraction of his previous salary. He led on a couple of significant projects and made some impact, but that wasn’t enough. So, against the advice of his mentors, he crossed the road and joined a post-92 university. Some of the most esteemed professors told him that he was committing academic and research suicide. Nevertheless, he followed his heart and within a few years ended up heading one of the largest Digital Transformation research centres in the world and the largest national provision of Digital Degree Apprenticeships. In the process he had achieved several accolades, but what gave him real joy was the success of his students. His graduates, more than 70% of whom would have never gone into higher education otherwise and more than 80% of whom didn’t believe they would do well in university, were outperforming the equivalent Oxbridge graduates in terms of average salaries and job security.
Continuing to follow his heart (often against conventional wisdom), he took on the challenge of becoming one of the first Pro Vice Chancellors for Digital Transformation in the country. It would have been safer to have taken the well-trodden road of established senior roles in Research or Education, but following Robert Frost’s advice, he “took the road less travelled by”, and hopes that “it will make all the difference”.
When asked if he had any advice for the readers of this blog, he said:
For Descartes, the ability to think was enough evidence of existence – “I think, therefore, I am”. For me, converting thoughts into action is equally important – I am because, I have the audacity to dream dreams and the tenacity to materialise them. From unexpected rewards to unravelling of best laid plans, life is unpredictable and full of surprises. So be like Martin Luther King and “have a dream”, then be Roosevelt's “man person in the arena, strive valiantly, learn from mistakes, and spend yourself in a worthy cause”.
As he got up to leave, he read the following poem by Frost and said: Every underdog can earn the right to bark; believe in yourself and follow your dream!
The great Overdog
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye
Gives a leap in the east.
He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.
I'm a poor underdog,
But to-night I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.
Professor Raheel Nawaz, Pro Vice Chancellor (Digital Transformation) at Staffordshire University, is an international thought leader in Digital Education and industry-academia co-design. He is among the most cited scholars worldwide in Applied AI and Educational Data Science. His work has resulted in outstanding student achievement across three continents.
Nominations for the 2023 National Teaching Fellowship Scheme and Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence are now open.