A Place That Checked All the Boxes Rafay Hassan '22 was looking for a liberal arts university that would give him individualized attention and put his critical thinking skills to the test. He found that and more at W&L.
“Teaching and community service, for me, are opportunities for self-exploration. Engaged in these endeavors, I have learned more about both my strengths and my weaknesses.”
~ Rafay Hassan ’22
Hometown: Lahore, Pakistan
Q: Why did you decide to attend W&L?
I always wanted to travel abroad for college and throw myself out of my comfort zone. In particular, I wanted to attend a liberal arts institution where instructors were willing to attend to me as an individual rather than as just another face in a massive lecture hall. Only then would my assumptions about life be truly challenged and my critical thinking abilities be put to test. W&L stood out to me as a place that checked all of these boxes.
I believe this university has the capability to turn out truly well-rounded leaders of the future, capable of everything from designing effective state policy to surviving in the wilderness. At the same time, I think it can also teach us something about staying grounded and remembering that our success is never our own, but rather the product of the efforts of many fine human beings who choose to selflessly dedicate their time and resources just to see us fully achieve our potential.
Q: What made you decide to study economics and mathematics?
If you were to have a casual afternoon conversation with me, you would think I absolutely despise economics. I am perhaps more critical of the discipline than anyone possibly could be. I think economists have only recently come to realize the importance of humility; before this, there were only a few legends in the field who understood that economics is not an exact science and that economic theory (if that’s even a thing) has to be applied according to the context under consideration.
Why, then, am I still enamored with it? Well, precisely because of its imperfections. I believe that economists today are uniquely placed to experience the joy that comes from criticizing one’s own work – from studying a variety of other disciplines and finding out that one particular insight from sociology or behavioral psychology that absolutely demolishes a seemingly indestructible model. That, in my opinion, is what truly builds character – character that is crucial to solving issues of global poverty and inequality.
As for mathematics…let’s just say I am that kid who took Calculus 2, saw an instructor prove the irrationality of the square root of 2, thought it was the slickest thing in the world and decided to stay on the bus (even when the bus turned out to be a freakishly dangerous roller coaster). I have met W&L’s smartest in the corridors of Chavis Hall, and while their sheer brilliance chips away at my self-esteem every day, I would still give the world to sit down and learn from them.
Q: What can you share about your research with Professor Michael Anderson, associate dean of the Williams School? How has that experience enriched your college career?
Dr. Anderson is much more than my advisor. In many ways, he is the single reason behind anything I know about empirical economic research. I started working with him in summer 2020 on a project that looked at the effect of various kinds of violence on international trade flows. When the school year began, he was gracious enough to allow me to co-author the paper with him and his colleagues. We presented the first version of it at the Southern Economic Conference in November 2020 and are currently working to refine and polish it. We hope to have a final version out by the end of this year. Besides technical skills, this project has helped me develop a healthy academic skepticism that pushes me to reflect more deeply on things without quickly jumping to any conclusions. The best part about it all, however, is the camaraderie. In Dr. Anderson, Dr. Stephen Smith (Hope College) and Morgan Dalton ’19, I have found three people I can truly count on.
Q: You have worked as an econometrics peer tutor at W&L, coached debates at Lahore Grammar High School, and presided over an intern training program at the microfinance organization Akhuwat. What do you enjoy about helping others to learn?
I’ll circle back here to what I said earlier about our success never being our own. I am what I am today because thousands of people thought it was worth their time to invest in me. It is only fitting that I give back to society in some way. I think the essence of human existence lies in interdependence; no matter how rich, powerful or skilled you are, you can never be entirely self-sufficient. I, for example, coached debates, but I usually needed some of my own students to sit me down and tutor me about life. Teaching and community service, for me, are opportunities for self-exploration. Engaged in these endeavors, I have learned more about both my strengths and my weaknesses. Additionally, I have realized that I can add value to this world even if I don’t have all the answers.
Q: How did your study abroad experiences in Ireland and Lebanon contribute to your W&L experience?
I went to Ireland with Professor Marc Conner and Professor Alexandra Brown as part of their signature ENGL-397 Spring Term course. In a word, Ireland was magical. Its rich history, its mesmerizing literary tradition and its sheer natural beauty all came together to make my heart sing. It’s a rare feeling when you go to another country and immediately feel a strange connection to its people – as if they know what’s been keeping you up at night and want to convince you that you’re not alone in your craziness. Ireland played a crucial role in increasing my appreciation of art and spirituality; from beautiful stained-glass windows to rustic stone fortresses on lonely islands, the land of Erin speaks loudly to the unboundedness of artistic innovation. You can be a true romantic there…you can really let yourself go!
Fast forward a month and I was in Lebanon. A vastly different yet equally mind-blowing experience. I went to Lebanon to study Arabic at the American University of Beirut. Learning the language itself, however, was only one part of the adventure. My instructors were driven to ensure that I could blend into Lebanese society just like a native. Consequently, in a matter of weeks, I found myself humming to the tunes of Fairuz and conversing in vernaculars I didn’t even know existed. Lebanon is the kind of place you should visit in order to unlearn the habit of creating baseless socio-cultural dichotomies. Some folks, for instance, love to neatly bifurcate civilization in terms of an eastern half and a western half. In reality, things are never as black and white as that. Just try standing inside a Lebanese church and you’ll understand.
Q: What do you plan to do after you graduate?
I want to spend a few years working in the corporate sector, and then maybe go to law school. I would particularly love to explore the intersection of economics, law and technology. I don’t want to think too far ahead though. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life can change overnight and the best we can really do is take it as comes.
Q: Has anyone served as a mentor to you at W&L? How?
This is a hard question to answer, since every professor I have had (and many I haven’t had) at W&L have all contributed to my growth. If you were to force me to pick one, then I’d go with Professor Anthony Edwards. Dr. Edwards is not just an Arabic instructor, he is almost a real-life Coach Carter. Under his tutelage, I have come to refuse complacency as an option. I have also learned that if you truly value something/someone, you will find time for it/them.
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More About Rafay
What is your personal motto or favorite saying?
“I do not believe in taking the right decision. I take a decision and make it right.”
~ Muhammad Ali Jinnah
What’s your favorite shop or restaurant in Lexington?
Big fan of Wednesday night at Salerno.
What do you get there?
I create my own pizza with ricotta cheese, grilled chicken, olives and jalapenos.
What’s your favorite spot on campus?
What book or film do you recommend to everyone?
Book: “Good Economics for Hard Times” by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
Film: “A Beautiful Mind”
What’s the one food you can’t do without?
Literally every Pakistani lamb curry
Favorite W&L event?
Favorite place you’ve ever been?