Middlebury Voices

“You do a small thing—and just by spreading the word and educating each other, you can actually
make change happen.”


mail messages from Naina Qayyum ’15 come with a hyperlink under the signature line. Click on the link, and you are transported to her hometown, Chitral, Pakistan—to its website filled with news, announcements, and photos. Chitral sits in a dramatically beautiful, rugged spot in the Hindu Kush Mountains of northern Pakistan. Only one mountain pass connects the town with the rest the country, and when it snows, she says, “you may be stuck there.” Naina speaks often about her home, and although she hasn’t lived there in many years,
she visits frequently.

When Naina was 10, she, her parents, and three siblings moved to Islamabad for her father’s work as a public health doctor, and Naina was thinking about becoming a doctor herself. That changed when she stumbled upon an advertisement for United World Colleges. The idea of bringing students from all over the world together appealed to her. But she didn’t think she would be one of them, “being the oldest sibling and being a girl.”

Having lived “in the midst of fear” growing up in Pakistan, Naina Qayyum ’15 is determined to work for diversity, creativity, and women’s power to make a difference.

She applied—just to learn what it was like to go through the application process. When she was asked to take the UWC entrance exam, she says she did it just to have the experience. And when she received a call asking her to come to Karachi for an interview, it was the idea of having another new experience that drew her there. 

Applying the Liberal Arts

At Middlebury College, Naina discovered that her education would be an active one. “I found that it’s not just about going to a class and reading from books; it’s about having the freedom to discuss and tell your viewpoint. You are supposed to be critical and analytical about what you are being taught.” She decided to major in economics because it allows her to be analytical. “You can do a lot of good by analyzing data that answer questions people wonder about.”

Never one to turn down an opportunity for a new learning experience, she has participated in many activities at Middlebury. She traveled to Puerto Rico for an alternative break to investigate environmental conservation in the rainforest. She has played an active role in the Islamic Society, for which she received an Innovation Award. But she says her most meaningful experience has been her participation in MiddCORE, an immersive winter term and summer program that teaches entrepreneurship, creative problem solving, and interpersonal skills.

The more she learned about innovation and entrepreneurship, the more she thought of Chitral. “I realized that a lot of things need to be done for the girls of Chitral,” she says. She developed a project idea called Involving Women for Social Change, applied for and received funding, elicited the help of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program to locate young women to participate, and found a location for her weeklong workshop. It was held in a hotel in town, where her participants would have privacy “because in Chitral,” she explains, “you only see men in the marketplace.” Nineteen women came, traveling from nearby villages over rough terrain. Two even rode in atop a load of logs being delivered to town. 

Her workshop, inspired by MiddCORE’s human-centered design process, was wildly successful, with participants developing concrete plans and prototypes for tackling community issues, such as stopping child abuse, increasing action for environmental sustainability, and setting up a skill center. 

Over the course of the workshop, the young women worked in teams, chose questions or “design challenges” to focus on, and developed solutions. They went through brainstorming processes, mock interviews, and practiced doing fieldwork. “Since we couldn’t leave the hotel premises, we interviewed people inside the hotel—to get a sense of how you would design questions, carry out an interview, how you consolidate information, and make the information useful,” she explains. Many of the participants said they planned to go home and teach their friends and youth groups the process they had just learned.

Reflecting back on the last few years, Naina believes that UWC and the Davis UWC Scholars Program have shaped her worldview and sense of herself. “They exposed me to things I’d never thought about. I’ve learned so much about myself and developed and grown so much.” She is very grateful to Shelby Davis for his generosity and commitment to the Davis UWC Scholars Program, which provided her the opportunity to continue the cycle of learning and exploration.

Thinking about her life after graduation, Naina has a long list of ideas she would like to tackle. From working in the nonprofit sector, to improving public health, to conducting economic research, she plans to take things “a step at a time . . . be patient . . . be thankful. It is going to be a positive mark when I look back at my life.”