Pakistan: Age is no barrier to learning

With the sort of things we see, hear and observe in this day and age, you might be tempted to think nothing can surprise you anymore.

But last month I met Sitara Brooj Akbar, and my sceptical bubble was entirely burst.

Scoring a Band 7 on your IELTS exam is pretty impressive when you’re in your 20s, it is nothing short of amazing when you are Sitara, who is all of 11 years old.

When I saw her at the IELTS exam venue, I first thought she was the daughter of a candidate, but was understandably shocked (and remained so for a while) when I found out she was, in fact, a candidate.

In my three year experience within the IELTS department at the British Council, she was the youngest candidate I have ever dealt with and upon speaking to her I realised that she was an extraordinary young girl with above average intelligence.

Hailing from Rabwah (Chenab Nagar), a small town in Pakistan’s Punjab province, it’s hard to believe you’re conversing with an 11 year old when you’re speaking to Sitara. She has already passed five O level subjects including English, physics, chemistry and biology (subjects that, despite my age, still continue to terrify me), making her the youngest O level candidate in the world.

Having passed chemistry at the age of nine, she gives credit to her parents for inspiring her to achieve all that she has. Sitara believes anyone can achieve the extraordinary if they put their minds to it but lamented that not many do.

“The most important thing I did was setting a life goal,” she told me. “Unfortunately, I do not see the majority of my peers doing this and that is the reason we do not achieve anything; because we do not set any goals for ourselves.”

Big words for a small girl; but one can’t help but admire her conviction.

Currently studying to take her A levels privately, Sitara sees herself becoming a scientist, which is why she chose mostly science subjects for her O levels.

So why did she choose to take the IELTS exam?

Apparently she wanted to test her proficiency in English as well as her shortcomings. Scoring an overall 7 with a 7.5 in the speaking module, her English is – needless to say – quite strong.

I felt quite a bit of pride when Sitara went ahead to compliment the British Council.

“It is the first organisation that opened opportunities for me despite my age,” she said. “It will always be close to my heart.”

The future looks bright for Pakistan with girls like Sitara following their dream, and the British Council will be there to help them along the way.

I would wish best of luck to her, but with her sharp mind and laser focus, she hardly needs it.