A member of QF’s Class of 2020 recounts her experience of advocating for the environment through empathy
When studying international affairs like the economics of the world or political conflicts, thoughts may not always turn to the importance of empathy in understanding these issues.
However, when Salma Hassan traveled to Spain last year on a university trip to study the armed political struggle of ethnic Basques in northern Spain, the main thing she took away from the experience was to be more empathetic towards global issues, starting from macro level down to the individual lives they impact.
“We always have this preconceived notion that ‘I understand what’s going on’, but going to the Basque country and meeting people there directly gave me a perspective that I don’t think any book, article, or video would’ve given me,” said Hassan, who recently graduated with a major in international economics from Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q).
It made me have more empathy for what I am studying, and made me realize that I am not just studying dots on a map or numbers in a dataset, but that I am studying real people and that this affects real people
“It made me have more empathy for what I am studying, and made me realize that I am not just studying dots on a map or numbers in a dataset, but that I am studying real people and that this affects real people. Since then, I have taken everything I learned with a grain of salt unless I really understand a complex issue through someone I know.”
Hassan, who grew up in Qatar, is one of the most actively involved members of GU-Q’s Class of 2020. Throughout her student life, she maximized the number of opportunities available to her, excelling not only in academics and graduating with Latin honors, but also in myriad extracurricular activities, ranging from her participation in the Model United Nations and playing basketball to community service and being a research assistant.
At GU-Q, and QF, in general, there is always an opportunity around to do something, to be something, or just help out others
“At GU-Q, and QF, in general, there is always an opportunity around to do something, to be something, or just help out others,” she says. “And I think every student should chase these opportunities to have a wholesome experience and grow as a person.
“You only regret things you didn’t do, and I don’t have that.”
Empathy towards the environment
Practicing empathy, Hassan explains, was not something she limited purely to deciphering global issues tied to her major. Instead, it was a value that guided virtually all the activities she pursued as a student, particularly her most rewarding experience of founding the GU-Q Sustainability Club. As its president, Hassan advocated for empathy towards the environment via sustainable activities on campus.
“Being empathetic might be harder in the case of climate change, because you are trying to take care of something that you don’t physically interact with on a daily basis in the same way that you interact with a human,” said Hassan. “But empathy is very much related to sustainability, and a major part of it is being empathetic towards the future generations of this planet.”
One of the main milestones of the club was to collaborate with a Qatar-based environmental technologies company to introduce the concept of “up-cycling” on campus, by bringing in a mobile on-site machine that turns scraped leftovers of the cafeteria meals into rich compost. Not to be confused with recycling, up-cycling is the process of transforming waste into new materials of better quality or that have a wider use.
To further delve into the field of environmental sustainability, Hassan pursued research projects on food waste in Qatar and also interned at Qatar Green Building Council (QGBC), a QF entity that promotes sustainable building designs in the country. As part of the internship, she developed and implemented the EcoCampus program that promotes environmentally friendly practices at educational institutes.
I am positive about certain things in this situation due to the fact that we are all going through this together
Travel ban, blockade, and pandemic
Academics and extra-curricular activities were not the only things that enriched Hassan’s university experience. In fact, her student life—and how much she grew during it—was also shaped by the various difficulties she encountered over the years.
In 2017, when several neighboring states announced the blockade of Qatar, Hassan – who is from Egypt – was one of the several QF students from the blockading countries who feared the future of their education made uncertain by a political conflict.
“My father lost his job, and I was worried about whether I could stay in Qatar or not, so it wasn’t an ideal situation,” said Hassan. Eventually, Hassan’s family was able to work with the authorities in Qatar to remain in the country, and she has been able to continue her education without any disruption.
Among other challenges faced by Hassan and the batch of students that she is part of was working around the travel ban to US imposed on certain nationalities, just before the group prepared to study abroad at Georgetown’s main campus in Washington D.C., and graduating amidst the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, Hassan believes that experiencing such challenges, particularly a global pandemic, has made herself and her fellow Class of 2020 graduates more resilient and prepared for the trials of the real world.
“I am positive about certain things in this situation due to the fact that we are all going through this together. The entire world is going through this, and it’s beneficial to know that you have been through it all as a batch,” Hassan said.
“It’s especially the case for students of international affairs, as experiencing these global events truly gives you the real-life understanding, and it comes back to learning empathy about global issues through your own personal experiences.”
Currently, Hassan is trying to make the most out of the stay-at-home guidance by taking online courses from some reputable universities. After the pandemic is over and economic opportunities open up, she ideally sees herself either doing development work with international organizations or working in the field of environmental sustainability to raise awareness of its importance.