By: Saadia Ahmad, DC Elementary School Program Coordinator
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff
“But you’re a fashion designer, how come you’re teaching?”
“Don’t you want to pursue designing/continue working in a field you went to school for?”
“Youth work is such a different career path, don’t you miss designing?”
And the list goes on…
Hello world! My name is Saadia and this is my journey toward finding my passion as a youth worker.
Born and raised in Pakistan, I was fortunate to have a loving and supportive family who encouraged me to pursue my own dreams instead of succumbing to society’s expectations. We often hear about Asian parents pressuring their children to choose certain career paths; that concept was never imposed on me. My parents did however, expect me to always use my professional and personal skills in the service of others.
I remember my sweaty palms and racing heart when I told my dad I wanted to apply to Pakistan’s thriving new fashion school at that time. His only question to me was: how would I use those skills to help people? I remember the relief yet a rush of responsibility passing over me. “How can I though?” More than 60 million people live below the poverty line in Pakistan, but textiles and craft work is part of the country’s heritage. I decided my goal would be to create jobs for impoverished workers with my own clothing design operation.
But life had other plans for me…
I moved to London, UK, soon after I graduated. My three years living there led to the start of my journey toward youth work. At that time, my nephew was diagnosed with high-functioning autism disorder, something that was totally new to me. I had never had direct exposure to people with developmental disorders before. It was jarring and painful to see how people responded to him. It took me a long time to figure out the best ways to communicate with him, and I was anxious to learn more.
Because of my nephew, I was introduced to his primary school in London, where I got a job as a learning support assistant. I worked closely with a young person with autism who had difficulty learning which also affected his social and emotional behavior. Working and growing in that environment changed me as a person. I learned to be more patient, more supportive, more non-judgmental and more positive, which helped me change my whole outlook. I started appreciating little things in life and learned to find happiness and contentment in what I was blessed with. I truly understood what my dad had always wanted from me; I found happiness in helping.
Fast forward to today, my relocation to America led me to AALEAD, which opened a whole new chapter in my life. I got the opportunity to work as a teacher for a little over a year with youth who were both underserved and came from communities that suffered enormous opportunity-gaps. AALEAD’s focus on identity, inclusivity, and their effort to eliminate achievement gaps, really struck a chord and I found my love and passion in helping young people from low-income communities. As I belong to a minority group myself, both here and in Pakistan, I’ve experienced firsthand how profiling and discrimination and not having a sense of belonging can affect you.
So to answer your questions; I am a designer, I am a lover of food, I am an admirer of music, and I am a coffee enthusiast. I’m all those things mixed up but I feel full and content in my purpose of helping and youth work is how I choose to do so. Our youth are honest. Our youth are the future. Helping, supporting, and uplifting one young person at a time, I have found my true calling. A career that is fulfilling, a place where I get to work closely with supportive colleagues, and help build a safe environment for youth to embrace their identity and reach their full potential.
I am a youth worker!