Humans of Jacobs: Zoela

Syeda Zoela Gilani (Pakistan) | Class of 2020

Syeda Zoela Gilani (Pakistan) | Class of 2020

I met Syeda Zoela Gilani as early as move-in day of Orientation Week 2017. We were both extremely new to everything and we gave each other the ‘we got this’ smile. She was quiet, simple and reflective. There was (and still is) an air of serenity about her – like you’d be at peace around her. In the next two years over which I got to know her, I learnt that she’s so much greater than all of those initial observations I had made.

This year, Zoela took over the presidential position of the Amnesty International Club at Jacobs University. She is also the vice-president of the Rotaract Club: “I’ve always been devoted to the cause of the community and these clubs give you a kind of agency to do good things for the people around you.” Zoela opened up about what inspires her to give without asking for anything in return, to be so selfless. Apart from nearly moving me to tears, it restored my faith in humanity and the love we’re all capable of sharing. “Every time I see a child suffering at the hands of war, every time I see that a child is the pawn in the game older people are playing, it angers me and makes me want to do even more to make sure every child is happy, healthy and loved.”

Zoela was born in Pakistan but spent a lot of time growing up in the UAE. In spite of being away from home for considerable periods, there’s no other place she’d go back to rather than Pakistan and work tirelessly for the community that gave her so much. “I come from a country that has seen a lot of pain and suffering, especially in recent times. A long time ago, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t die without knowing I at least tried to do something and I strive to keep that promise, no matter what,” she said.

A few weeks ago, Amnesty International organised a Mental Health Awareness week, with the aim of getting more people to talk openly about their mental health and remove the stigma around the subject. “It’s an important issue and we need to talk about it more often. We wanted to make sure we sent out the message that it’s okay, we’ve all been there,” she reflected. Organising a campus-wide event like this one is no mean feat, and although challenging, it was a learning experience: “I didn’t do it out of compulsion, but out of gratitude for everyone around me”.

To keep her own mental health in check, Zoela takes times off to take deep breaths and deconstruct the problem that’s bothering her. “It’s very important to let go of the ego; I detach my being from my body and try to understand the issue from a different point of view.” Is it difficult to go through this deconstruction process? “It used to be, but not anymore.”

A final year Biochemistry and Cell Biology major, she wishes to pursue further education in Public Health and continue to make a mark on the world. “I never want to stop putting in effort,” she said when I asked her about her future plans. Zoela’s motivation and drive is not without a role model. An avid reader, Zoela read the autobiography of philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi as a teenager and it stayed with her. “He came to Pakistan from India during the partition, and in a time where it was so easy to perpetuate hate and divisions and differences, he viewed all humans as one.”

Knowing Zoela is loving Zoela. Her heart, her outlook of life and her optimism towards making the world a better place is truly awe-inspiring. In her words, she gives very little as compared to what she takes; she knows she will be content only when she’s given back in equal amounts, if not more.


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