ECHO Award finalist Sahar Afzal: voice of many young people

Sahar Afzal

September 13, 2019

Sahar Afzal (22) has been nominated as a finalist for the ECHO Awards. She is using her voice to make sure that other young people are heard. Sahar finished her studies at Amsterdam University College over the summer and will begin her Master’s programme in Conflict Studies at the University of Amsterdam this September.

With the awards ceremony, the national expertise centre for diversity policy ECHO helps to shine a light on excellent students with a non-Western background who can contribute to creating equal opportunities for all. Winners are rewarded with a fully organised summer course at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States.

In addition to Sahar Afzal, fellow UvA student Ahmed Bayoumy was also nominated for the Echo Award finals. Both students will present their mission to the jury on 26 September 2019, when it will become clear who will be granted the coveted ECHO Award.

Letters to court

Next to her studies, Sahar Afzal also serves as a board member for the Dutch branch of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women. When you give a voice to many other young people, both literally and figuratively creating a kind of echo, nothing could be more fitting than to be honoured as a finalist in the ECHO Awards. Where did Sahar discover that she enjoyed helping others to express their views? Sahar: ‘At my secondary school, the Berlage Lyceum in Amsterdam, there were children from many different countries. Some of them didn’t even have a residence permit. I helped undocumented children write letters to court, which meant that I was already thinking about how I could use my talent in expressing myself both verbally and in writing to help others from a relatively young age.

UN youth representative

Sahar graduated from her Honours Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Amsterdam University College with a cum laude designation this past summer, but her efforts to help others during her secondary education unfortunately took a toll on her own results: she failed her pre-university examination, eventually obtaining her diploma through an adult education programme. Sahar is convinced that you learn just as much or even more from matters outside the school walls. ‘Despite my personal setback of failing to obtain that diploma, I still wanted to help others and I was looking for a way in which I could contribute to society. After I decided to run in the election for the United Nations youth representative, I was elected following many rounds and got to serve as the Dutch youth representative for the UN in the course of 2.5 years. In my time as representative, I talked with over 10,000 young people from all over the world about the role of young people in policy processes, children’s rights, radicalisation, sustainability, democracy and emancipation’.

Sahar Afzal

Differing opinions

Sahar certainly picked an interesting time to be a UN youth representative, as the refugee crisis was at its peak in 2015 and 2016. Sahar: ‘At times, I would speak with groups who held very different opinions. What do you do when students who are training to be security guards say that “we should ship all refugees off to an islands so they can’t assault our daughters here”? This issue taught me a lesson in mental resilience, but it especially taught me to look for the reasons why people might say certain things. Simply confronting them will not solve anything.’

The ECHO Award will go to someone who builds bridges between different worlds, while Sahar believes that she can bridge the gap between young people and policymakers on both the national and the international level. Born and raised in Amsterdam from a Dutch mother and a father who hailed from the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, she grew up to be part of two very different cultures. Sahar: ‘As a result, I learned that there are two sides to each story. My parents had me watch not just the Dutch news, but also international programmes that showed issues from a different or wider perspective.’

Battle for accessibility

What would Sahar suggest that the UvA should do to improve inclusion and diversity further? ‘I see diversity and inclusion as broad subjects that have common ground in the topic of accessibility. For instance, Amsterdam University College would be much more inclusive if it didn’t ask for double the tuition fees. This way, you’re not accessible to all layers of the population. Isn’t it strange that a degree programme can simply require someone to pay double the tuition fees? While there are certain grants to compensate, those grants are also open to diplomat’s children, so to speak.’

Sahar also wishes to advocate more inclusion by making it easier for students to develop themselves outside of their studies. ‘I think that an excellent student has to be someone who also contributes to a better society. Good marks alone are not enough. Of course, this situation would require you to step out of your comfort zone and set aside some time, so any help that the university could provide would be wonderful. Some lenience in the time that it takes to complete your Bachelor’s degree would be a good example. Furthermore, I would like to take an even broader look at diversity and include political diversity in this topic. I feel that there should be more emphasis on the diversity of political preferences and the ability to discuss them freely in a left-leaning city such as Amsterdam.’

Experimenting with a quota

Of course, the topic of diversity also includes the ratio of men and women in high-level positions. What is Sahar’s vision on this matter? ‘Although there are many more women attending university than there are men, the percentage of female professors is still quite low. To change this fact, it’s important that the university doesn’t create selection committees that only resemble the existing leadership. That is why I find the establishment of a quota at Eindhoven University of Technology so interesting. While people are always a bit scared of the word ‘quota’, there have been many studies which prove that it certainly has an impact and that harsh temporary measures can safely be discontinued after a few years. I am very curious to see what the results in Eindhoven will be. Diverse teams work better. As far as I am concerned, I would be happy for Amsterdam to experiment with a quota as well.’

Keeping eyes and ears open

The ECHO finalists will automatically be ECHO ambassadors as well, meaning that they work to inspire young people towards excellence in their work and their studies. Sahar wants to inspire young people by engaging them in conversation and helping to build bridges. ‘It would be so cool if a young person were to say: “She is someone who can really bring about change, has connections, knows what she wants and takes me seriously by talking with me instead of about me.” People in top positions are sometimes accused of living in an ivory tower. If I manage to land one of those positions, I aim to be keeping my eyes and ears wide open.’