Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Umaimah Mendhro on her Homeschooling Experience

Following is a discourse with Umaimah Mendhro who was home-educated for a part of her life in her home-village Akri, Sindh, Pakistan. She later went on to study at Cornell University, work at Microsoft and founded Dreamfly (http://www.thedream fly.org/). She is currently in her 2nd year MBA program at Harvard Business School. Below, she talks about her home education experience and how it has shaped the person she is.
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Salaam Maryam and all,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to connect with you. I apologize for not being able to meet you all in person during my last visit to Pakistan. I do look forward to meeting you in the near future. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if there's anything I can help with.

My responses to Maryam's question below.

Warm regards,

Was home education a conscious choice?

A quasi-conscious choice. My parents are both doctors and my father is originally from a village near Badin. He is the only one in his family who self-pursued an education. He always wanted to build a hospital near his village, so when my parents got married (they were class-mates at Medical School), they built a private hospital and a home on top of the hospital. When they had their first child (my older brother, we're two siblings including me), they knew they would have to move to Karachi in order to give their children proper education. So they got my brother admitted at Karachi Grammar School, but when the patients learnt about this, patients who used to travel for a full day just to get to my parents' hospital, they pleaded my mother not to leave. My mother didn't tell me this till a year ago when I was at Harvard Business School… but one after the other patient told my mother they would pray that her children get to the world's, not just Karachi's, best institutions one day, but that she stays because they have no one else to go to. I can imagine how difficult this decision may have been for my parents. They couldn't get themselves to leave… and so they stayed.

Turns out, for unrelated reasons to above, we had to move to Saudi Arabia when I was two and my brother four years old. We spent the next 10 years in Saudi Arabia where we were occasionally home-schooled when my parents couldn't find a good school nearby that they were happy with. We also got to learn Urdu and Sindhi at home, when we were home-schooled, largely by our parents. When we moved back to Pakistan, we started a new life in Karachi. My parents started a private clinic in Liyari (they wanted to go where the need was), but somehow that didn't work out from a revenue/income perspective (too much competition, not much demand, as it turned out). So my parents started to commute to Badin from Karachi (up to 5 hours each way). The need in Badin was still enormous 10-11 years later. They ended up spending more and more time there. And eventually, they felt that we should all move to Badin. I was in grade 8 then.

We arranged for a study-from-home arrangement with a school in Hyderabad for that one year. For the second year, I signed up to do private matriculation. In addition to about 2 years or so of home-schooling in Saudi Arabia, I was home-schooled from grade 8 onwards.

For how many years were you home educated? Tell us about your experience?

While I don't remember the early years of home-schooling a lot, I do remember sessions with my parents where we used to learn Sindhi at home. It always felt much more fun than school because we learned things by doing, seeing, and experiencing, not from books. The years of home-schooling in/after grade 8 were absolutely phenomenal. It was through that experience that I discovered my love for knowledge and reasoning, that I developed a drive for independent, critical thinking, that I thought of the purpose of life and what I wanted mine to stand for. Everything I got into, I explored to the depths of my interest. The official Urdu textbook, for instance, was my gateway to Urdu literature – a poet/writer's work I would sample through the textbook, say Ghalib, Manto, I'd go out and buy all their published work; I started writing short-stories and then a novel. My parents would enable and ignite the interests further – they connected me a friend of theirs in Badin who was also an Urdu Literature aficionado to spend time with me discussing various literature. I remember that as one of the highlights of grade 9! We spent months meeting every day. I used to study the Science subjects with my parents – study them through books, keep the text-book as reference but use all kinds of library and purchased books, and then go to my dad for any questions/discussio ns about Chemistry and mom for Biology. If I needed more help in a particular area, they'd try to arrange for a short-term tutor to come help. I had maybe 1-2 month of home-tutoring for Math and Physics each. The Math tutor made me discover my love for Math – the one-on-one format really worked very well for me as I really enjoyed questioning, reasoning, analyzing, and discussing things, and the tutors were stuck around were the ones who indulged me in that way :)

Have you ever attended school? If yes, looking back, do you find the two modes having a different impact on your learning and how do you think they affect your university, professional and social life?

Yes, grade 3-5 in Saudi Arabia and grade 6-8 in Pakistan are the years I attended a school. They had very different impact than home-schooling on my learning for sure. The school years are largely a blur in my mind – I don't get all revved up as I do when I think about the home-schooling years especially grade 8 on. I don't remember feeling truly challenged at school. I felt like being part of a bigger system that I must abide by. I used to come first in class, so a lot of my personal attention went towards grades (my parents never put any pressure whatsoever on grades, rather, used to tell me to chill :)) I think I built a desire for achievement through the school years and of developing a frame of reference for competition. The school years also helped build friendships and a sense for developing an identity for yourself in reference to others – that has helped me with empathy, understanding, and appreciating diverse points of views. I remember moments where I was moved by a classmates' problems at home or turned off by the group dynamics or cliques in a school – those were good learnings and experiences to have had. Having said that, what I am today is a significantly larger function of my home-school experience than it is of my few years in school. If I had never gone to a school, I feel I would've missed out certain learnings and experiences that are valuable to have had in life, however, if I hadn't been homeschooled I feel I wouldn't be me…

I wrote about my homeschooling experience in both my Cornell University and Harvard Business School admissions essays. It's hard to tell if that had any impact or not in my getting admitted to those schools, however, I do think the schools appreciated my unique background and perspectives around that, particularly HBS. I think the passion for reasoning, exploration, and learning built through homeschooling years really helped in the university years as I, more than perhaps many of my peers in both schools, led a much more self-directed focus of study and truly enjoyed the experience of learning for the sake of learning, which made doing well very easy (I graduated top 5% in both schools). I don't see it as having much direct impact on my professional life other than being an interesting conversation point :) And other than the fact that I feel more of an independent- thinker, who doesn't worry about "fitting in," and very comfortable in my skin – characters I do attribute to having lived my critical adolescent years the way I did through homeschooling.


  1. This is an enormous step you've taken, Umaimah and Mona. I am a B.A first year student residing in Pakistan for the last 8 years, currently in Karachi. I myself, have been luckily homschooled and I owe it all to God and my mother. Only and only her. Seven years homeschooled and satisfied. I was taught at home in American and in Pakistan and have learned a lot through out these years which I would've never had if I went to school. I have more knowledge, especially general knowledge than other professionals who went to school, college etc. At first I was forced to believe that if not schooled than at least university should be experienced because it gives you confidence. But I noticed that those attending universities weren't confident either. So it shows that school life is a waste of time and the main term school is defined negatively. I am now happily studying at home and have loads of time on my hand to do extra work and am writing about it to invite others to this ideology.

  2. How did she manage to get in to Cornell? Multiple recommendation letters from teachers/counselors are required to complete college applications. How does home schooling cope with that?

  3. Shahid, homeschoolers/unschoolers get in ivy league schools the same way others get in. They get top scores (PSAT, SAT, ACT, GMAT, GED). Also, most are better rounded in their 'after school activities' ... they have jobs at an early age, many take community college or other pre-college courses and some are even certified at an early age for anything they'd like. Also, depending on their interests, they have volunteer work experience, internships or apprenticeships which provide top-notch recommendations!

    According to Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute, "There were an estimated +100,000 students homeschooled in Canada during the 2000-2001 school year and an estimated 1,700,000 to 2,100,000 children (grades K-12) home educated during 2002-2003 in the U.S.
    Estimates for England and Wales varied widely from 13,000 to 50,000. Australian figures were in the range of 35,000 to 55,000. And one homeschool organization in Germany reported between 500 and 600 homeschooled students.

    I think Cornell has gotten a handle on it :)