Pakistani teacher calls Portland home

When Zafreen Jaffery departed for Portland State to teach the first Urdu language class offered at an Oregon university, she did not anticipate her time at PSU would make her want to come back.

After she returned to Pakistan from Portland the first time, obtaining her doctorate in educational leadership at PSU became the first stage of her mission to make a difference.

“As soon as I landed back home, I knew I wanted to come back,” she said, and she made it happen.

Right away she began applying for the program and an assistantship. Her parents humored her during the process, but when Jaffery was both accepted in the program and awarded the TA position, her parents realized she meant business.

“Are you really going back?” Jaffery recalled them saying.

“There was a lot of implicit pressure for me to stay,” Jaffery said, after her brother received an offer to study in England. Her father could only afford to support one student.

After earning her Ph.D. at PSU, Jaffery plans on gaining experience as an instructor. After becoming a seasoned professor, she said she would love to work for the U.N. or U.S. AID and help increase literacy in Pakistan.

In her research, Jaffery found that 400 million South Asian adults are illiterate, and that women consist of almost 60 percent of that number. The statistic inspired her, and she knew she had to begin taking the steps to make a difference.

Jaffery’s ultimate goal is to raise the education standards in Pakistan’s rural areas. For those who don’t have access to education, child labor is seemingly the sole solution for families to make their living. Jaffery wants to see that everyone has access to education.

The support she received from Portland State’s foreign language department proved invaluable to her during that time.

“They believed in me,” she said. “They valued me.”

Ultimately, Jaffery’s father and younger brother wanted her to accept the offer. It all worked out in the end, as Jaffery’s younger brother is currently pursuing his bachelor’s at a university in England.

“If you do good things, then good things happen to you,” she said.

Jaffery initially came to PSU as a Fulbright teaching assistant to teach Urdu, the language of her native country, Pakistan. She said she was not sure what to expect when she set off to live in a city with a 12-hour time difference from her family.

For a while, Jaffery said everything seemed unreal. She credited her host mother, whom she stayed with for her first 15 days, for showing her how to obtain a debit card, use the public transportation system and other practical processes.

Coming from a culture where women often do not venture outside the home unescorted, Jaffery said she experienced true independence living in her own Southeast Portland studio apartment. She ran a half marathon, met many nice people and enjoyed the variety of cuisine in the lush city.

She was prepared academically, with master’s degrees in both English literature and English language teaching and a gold medal for the highest marks among her graduate school cohorts. Even so, the ways of U.S. society were unfamiliar to her.

After Jaffery fulfilled her yearlong Fulbright commitment she returned to Pakistan, but Jaffery said things had changed. She returned to pursue her doctorate.

Not only did she miss walking along the riverside alone and the atmosphere of the PSU campus, but as a 27-year-old single and educated woman she was well past the marrying age. She recalled hearing people say, “She has no future here.”

Jaffery said that her family does not conform to the Pakistani norms, with her mother and four aunts having earned Ph.Ds.

Almost two years after she returned to PSU, Jaffery has seen the South Asian community of Portland take an interest in PSU. “We’re working towards the university’s larger goal of making connections with minority communities in Portland,” she said.