From Zero to Masters Hero!
When Bashir Gharwal came to the UK in 2010 from his native country of Afghanistan, he could not speak very much English.
As a 14-year-old, he came over with three of his brothers to live with his Father in London and faced the kind of struggle that most of us would find difficult to overcome; building a life in a new country and learning a brand new language.
He was fluent in his native language of Pashto and only knew a few basic words in English, so imagine how it was for him to start school in London and not able to understand what the teachers and your fellow classmates were talking about.
“Yes, it was very hard at first to come to a new country and trying to fit in. I was excited about coming over to the UK to get an education. My Mother wanted me to come as she knew that I would be taught well and hopefully do well, but it was so hard to begin with.”
Thoughts of passing exams and getting to University wasn’t even a pipe dream because of the obstacles in his way:
“When you are new to a school and you don’t speak English very well, you are treated differently and it was tough to fit in. After a little while, I could understand more basic words and phrases and then I came across another boy from Afghanistan who spoke Dari, one of the other languages spoken in Afghanistan, and he would translate things for me. However, I decided to focus on learning English by going to extra classes and dropping lessons in Geography and History. I also spent 3 -5 hours every day to find translations of English words that I came across using the Pashto dictionary.”
It was the fear of being left behind that stirred Bashir on to accelerate his learning of English and he would take his notebook everywhere with him and write words down that he came across but being away from his Mum and his younger siblings was hard:
“My parents are my motivation, I always speak to them before every exam and interview and anything important that happened in my life just to get their blessings and prayers. It really helped mentally to focus and get that extra push.”
By year 11 and after extensive study, Bashir had managed to get 5 GCSE’s grade A – C but he didn’t get English, which he needed to go on to study A ‘levels, so he took a business diploma and retook his English at 6th form college and passed it. He wanted to do Maths, Physics and Design Technology from the start, but because he took the Business diploma in his first year, he was only allowed to pick two A’ levels so he chose Maths and Design Technology.
However, when it came to what to do after A‘level, Bashir was not sure what he wanted. He eventually chose to do civil engineering and that was because he thought it would be useful in future should he go back to Afghanistan as they would need trained engineers to help rebuild the cities and the roads that had been destroyed in the on-going war over the past three decades.
Although Coventry was not one of his original choices of University, he eventually came through clearing and turned down the offers that he had from other universities because he had heard from a friend that Coventry had an excellent reputation for Engineering. He also did his own research and was then sure that Coventry was a better option for him.
“It was probably the best decision I could have made. I was extremely impressed with the facilities in Coventry and the excellent Engineering and Computing Building. In fact, I settled down quite quickly in Coventry because it has a great feel to it and I liked the fact that there were so many different nationalities and cultures here.”
In no time at all, Bashir joined a number of groups and societies. He had already done a lot of different volunteering roles for community projects in London, so it was only natural that he would want to continue that in Coventry:
“Volunteering is a great way to meet new people and experience new things. It is also good for helping with language and culture. Through volunteering, my confidence soared and I am convinced it has made me a better person as a result.”
While a student in Coventry, Bashir joined the Global Leader’s Programme “which was absolutely amazing” and was just one of five students to be accepted on the ‘ParliaMentor Programme’ as part of the Faith and Belief Forum. The ParliaMentors team worked towards setting up a Buddy programme for students who found it difficult to settle into University life.
“Some students can really suffer and so can their mental health. Our buddy scheme idea was to help those students by pairing them up with an older student mentor who could show them the ropes and be there when they needed help and advice.
“Ian Dunn, who was the Deputy Vice Chancellor for the Student Experience, was very supportive of this buddy scheme and so were all the faculty heads. They wanted us to come up with a structure of how it could be run and then the SU adopted it. It is so gratifying to know that what me and my fellow students initially set up is now part of an on-going programme.”
Bashir was also instrumental in looking at the kind of support that was available for students with mental health problems and conducted a survey which showed that more needed to be done to support students who were finding it hard to cope with university life.
“I am pleased to say that now there is a lot of support and that students do have a point of contact now that they can go to for advice.”
As well as being an active member of the Global Leaders’ Programme, Bashir was a course rep, a student ambassador, the president of the Afghan Society and went on the Introduction to Leadership Programme.
Bashir also played for the University cricket team.
“Cricket is a passion of mine and I played for the Osterley Cricket Club in London as well. However, things changed when I started University. I thought I could contribute more from getting my degree than I could in cricket and that is why I focused mainly on my studies.”
It was because of his cricketing background however, and his involvement with the Afghan Cricket Foundation, that he became involved with the RTA (Radio Television of Afghanistan) and Bashir was given the opportunity of a lifetime this summer when he worked on the Cricket World Cup as a reporter and TV presenter for RTA sport where he did daily updates.
“It was a truly amazing experience and it gave me such a buzz to be involved in such a prestigious tournament in my own way. I also did a lot of things that were out of my comfort zone like presenting and reporting, but it seemed to go down well and it is something I would like to do again.”
It was Bashir’s determination to do as many things as he could outside his studies which spurred him on to do well in his degree. He didn’t want to just get a degree, but get as much experience in other areas outside of his course work as he could.
After gaining a first class honours in Civil Engineering, he went on to complete his Master’s degree and during this time, continued with his volunteering work and his society obligations:
“I like to keep busy and focussed, that is why I put all my energy into study and my other commitments to help my fellow students.
“None of this would have been possible, however, without the support of my parents. They wanted me to get a good education and I have had an excellent one at Coventry University. It is not just the superb facilities, but the teaching and continuous support from the staff. I doubt I would have done as well without their help and confidence in me.”
If it hadn’t had been for the Global Leader’s Programme, Bashir would not have had the opportunity to go to the US and visit Washington DC.
“The GLP has been one of the things I have enjoyed the most because of the opportunities it gave me. I have met some wonderful people who came to Coventry as guest speakers and I made a lot of useful contacts.
I also was accepted for a place on the Global Peace Workshop in Turkey and I would definitely not have been able to do this if I hadn’t come to Coventry. In fact, Coventry has given me so much and I will be forever grateful for the experience of being a student here.”
It was because he threw himself so much into University life and helping other students, that Bashir was given the accolade of Student of the Year for 2019.
So what next?
Bashir has started to work for a company called Ramboll in London. Ramboll is a leading engineering, design and consultancy company founded in Denmark and works across the following markets: Buildings, Transport, Planning & Urban Design, Water, Environment & Health, Energy and Management Consulting.
“When I went for the interview, I was so thankful for the assessment centre training that the careers service put on at University because it geared me up for it and I felt extremely well prepared. My new employers seemed to be impressed with the extra-curricular activities on my CV, most of which I did here and I think it really helped me to stand out from the other candidates.
“I would like to use my engineering to do some good, both in Afghanistan and in the UK and one day, I’d like to do another Master’s degree and then a PhD but that is for the future. I need to concentrate on my work now.”
For anyone who might be in the same position as Bashir was as a 14-year-old coming to the UK and not able to speak English, he has some sound advice:
“My first piece of advice would be to believe in yourself and your abilities. You have to commit yourself to your studies. Nothing is easy and you might even have to fail before you succeed. I wasn’t always successful and have experienced failure along the way too, but it just makes you more determined to do well next time.
“Also, don’t be afraid to ask. If you don’t understand something, don’t suffer in silence, ask for help.
“The next thing I would advise is to be organised and have some structure to your life, both inside and outside university. It keeps you focussed and keeps you active both physically and mentally.
“Finally, I would say to be thankful for the things that come your way and to make the most of any opportunities to make you a better student and person. Coventry University has been the making of me. I have met some wonderful people and made friends for life. I have benefitted from the wisdom and support of my teachers and enjoyed being part of the student experience.
“It is something that I will never forget and will always be grateful for having this opportunity.”
If you want to get involved with Volunteering or any of the mentioned topics in this article - come speak with the Students' Union - the reception is open 9am - 4.30pm and can be found on the first floor of the Hub.