Aga Khan Higher Secondary School, Karachi

“Finding my strength”: Impact of an Aga Khan Schools education

08 March 2024

On International Women’s Day, meet Afsheen Jiwani, a champion for women’s empowerment, diversity and volunteering. She attributes her confidence to her alma mater, the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School (AKHSS), Karachi.

“It was a great time,” she says. “I was a commerce student, and we were a fun group of people. I’m still connected with many of them. I really cherish the relationships I built there.

“The school was quite new, so it was hard to get into. When I got admitted, my parents were really proud of me. My dad cried.”

“I come from a humble background,” Afsheen explains. “My dad was a salesman, and my mom was a government schoolteacher, and they really wanted my brother and I to have a high-quality education. I really honour the hard work they put into that.

“The school system I came from before was good, but I wanted more. My grades were good, and I wanted to study. I had a passion to move forward. AKHSS has a great reputation and is taught in the English medium.”

Afsheen recalls the hardworking and nurturing environment of the school. Teachers who saw her passion and reserve encouraged her to participate in debate competitions. Although a daunting experience, this was ultimately a game changer for Afsheen.

“I was shy, and I did not like public speaking at all,” she laughs. “But the school brought that into me and now if you ask me to stand up in front of 100 people and speak, I am very comfortable with that. The school really made us believe in ourselves and these opportunities gave us real-life experience which I value to this day.”

From student to fundraiser

After graduating in 2002, Afsheen won an Aga Khan scholarship to study for a BA and next an MBA at the Institute of Business Management. She then joined the Resource Development department at the Aga Khan University.

“It really opened my eyes. It was an international organisation with new leadership from Canada, which gave us more exposure to what was happening in the Western world. I worked with international donors and got the opportunity to travel to Dubai to meet other fundraisers from all over the world.

“It gave me exposure to how much our work impacts people’s lives. The work we do is so fulfilling. It also introduced to me to the work I’m doing now.”

A leap of faith

Determined to become a leader in the fundraising field, Afsheen took a leap of faith in 2012 and moved her family to Toronto, Canada, where they had no connections.

“I was very determined because I wanted to make life for my daughter much better. My daughter was four then, and my husband and I left everything we knew.

“It wasn’t easy. I didn’t know anybody in the fundraising world, I didn’t know what I was going to do but still, we had to survive, we had to pay our bills.”

She took a call centre job while she researched local fundraising career opportunities. After studying fundraising management at Toronto Metropolitan University, she started in data entry for social services supporting youth at risk. She then worked at a local food bank, fundraising on a small scale.

“Sometimes, you must take a step back to move forward.

“It was not all rosy. There were people who really set you back. There was also racism. I faced rejections related to that. But when people said I couldn’t do it, I would show them I could – and I did.

“My family was a big support. My daughter was an inspiration and a big motivator. It took me 10 years, but I finally got the opportunity I wanted, to work for a hospital.”

Today Afsheen is Campaigns Director, Major Gifts for the University Health Network, one of Canada’s top hospital foundations.

Inspiring confidence in women

When Women’s Executive Network, a North American organisation which champions the development, advancement and recognition of professional women, unveiled its 2023 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award Winners, Afsheen was on the list.

“It was unbelievable. I never thought I would get it because there are other women who have done so much in their life.”

The award highlights women who “personify what it means to be powerful through the way they empower and champion others”. For Afsheen, this means the importance of representation and inclusion across the winners.

“What I am most hopeful about this win is how I can inspire people. I got a few calls from women of colour, who never thought they would win or be nominated, but my win gave them confidence.”

Forging an inclusive world

“I'm a champion for women’s empowerment from my upbringing. I was lucky I had parents who empowered and educated me, who believed in me, but I’ve seen some women really dealing with the other side.

“That’s what inspired me to do something. When I came to Canada and got into the fundraising field, I got an opportunity to volunteer for Up With Women, an organisation that helps women who are dealing with poverty and violence at home. We help those women to be self-sufficient and work to get out of that environment.”

Afsheen highlights the importance of everyone being involved to advocate for women’s rights, regardless of gender.

“I think the next generation might be different, but it depends on the upbringing. Honestly, I think from childhood, boys should be taught that they must work as much as their sister or mother.”

AKHSS, Karachi’s contribution

Afsheen notes the impact AKHSS, Karachi had on her and the work she is doing today.

“I was always given an equal opportunity at school. The gender balance was quite equal in engineering, even in commerce. It was a very inclusive environment. There was never anything I was not able to do because I was female.

“AKHSS gave me the opportunity to go out there and find out what my strength is. It taught me resilience, courage and confidence.”

This profile is part of an alumni profiles series in collaboration with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Read more of our alumni profiles here.

  • Afsheen Jiwani, an alumna of the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School, Karachi