It’s always the quiet ones who surprise you. Nobody who knew Ahmad Shawwal in elementary or middle school would have imagined the shy immigrant would represent his school as a student leader, much less the whole country in an international broadcast. Maybe it’s true that still waters run deep.
Shawwal’s story began with his family coming to the United States from Multan, Pakistan, in 2001. His father, a professor of Urdu literature, wanted his children to have the educational opportunities available here. “He experienced many new problems so that he could give me new possibilities,” Shawwal says.
The sudden change of environment was hard at first for the 5-year-old. He missed his extended family in Pakistan. He didn’t speak English, and even the colder climate was a shock.
Eventually, Shawwal found a way to see this cultural disconnect as a positive. “It’s allowed me to appreciate the significance of always remembering one’s cultural roots and values so I may better build my foundation for the future,” he says.
Shyness was another barrier. Social and outgoing in Pakistan, he became more introverted upon arriving in a new country. Shawwal says he “chipped away” at that shyness, slowly made friends and began to feel more comfortable as his family settled into a new home in Virginia. After a couple of years, he was teaching the other students in his English as a second language (ESL) classes.
Enrolling at Massaponax High School in Spotsylvania, he was introduced to an organization that would require another leap in confidence. “I learned about SkillsUSA through my robotics class and became interested after hearing of its robotics competitions and opportunities for student leadership,” he says.
“SkillsUSA has completely changed my life. It provided me an outlet to expand upon my robotics interests while teaching me the importance of ‘soft skills’ like public speaking and teamwork.”
Seeing the importance of these skills for not only himself but also others convinced Shawwal to run for SkillsUSA Virginia’s District 11 secretary. “I had a vision that I could help my community,” he says.
Honoring their sacrifice
Shawwal soon learned more about SkillsUSA’s mission, which compelled him to get involved in community service projects and manage district competitions. “It was at that point that I realized just how vital this organization is,” he explains.
Pushing himself “out of the box” again, he ran for state office, then national. Last summer, Shawwal was elected as the high-school president for SkillsUSA. He credits this success with being genuine and articulating what he believes in.
In his “spare time,” he applied for a summer internship in graphic design at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Being awarded this honor was an impressive accomplishment in itself, but doubly so in his case: Shawwal is self-taught in graphic design, and high-school students are rarely selected.
His focus as an intern was on education. “I was able to work on 3-D animations and designs to create educational tools that would help educate students in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],” he says.
For a final internship project, his group created an interactive e-book about insect habitats titled Expedition: Insects. “We published it to the iBook store, where it was featured and ranked No. 10 for textbooks,” he adds.
In August, Shawwal was contacted by a radio reporter from Voice of America, who asked to interview him about SkillsUSA for its Urdu division. The interview later aired on the “Zindagi (Life) 360” program on Hum TV, an international channel.
While he’s been busy this school year representing the organization, Shawwal has never forgotten his parents’ sacrifice — nor lost his sense of responsibility to share the opportunities he’s been given.
“My family gave up their own interests because they knew their children would have a better future with a chance of an education in America,” he says. “It’s our duty to make sure that we not only help our country, but do the best we can for society as a whole.
“Taking the initiative is all it takes to make a large impact.”