Student of the Year 2019: Sonny Khan

Monday, April 22, 2019 - 8:50pm

Sonny Khan

Sonny Khan Buy this photo
Annie Klus/ Daily

Nestled in a corner of Lab Café, Sikander “Sonny” Khan takes a swig of water in between interview questions. “I need paani,” he explained. 

The Business junior, unabashedly sporting Lakers apparel in the heart of Ann Arbor, knows the value of water. Over the last year and a half, Khan helped co-found a non profit that seeks to alleviate the water crisis in Pakistan through fundraising money for wells and raising awareness of the crisis. The work, he feels, is urgent — many reports estimate the country will run dry by 2025.

Service is something apparent in Khan’s time at the University of Michigan. The organization, Paani, is only one of three nonprofits the Gates Millennium Scholar recipient has founded in his time here.

Paani was conceived when Khan met with LSA sophomore Faraz Longi, Public Health senior Omar Ilyas and LSA senior Arhum Arshad in a Wendy’s and they decided to take advantage of their time at the University to create change in Pakistan.

“Considering the amount of resources and volunteers and knowledge the University has, we decided we wanted to do something to help Pakistan,” Khan said.

For Khan, the cause is personal — his parents are Pakistani immigrants, and he easily could have been in the same position as a lot of the people Paani serves.

“My parents are Pakistani, and it means a lot to be able to give back to their homeland that’s given so much to all of us,” Khan said. “If my parents hadn’t immigrated to the U.S., I could be in the same situation as a lot of these kids over there. Little access to water, the water that they have is very dirty. You just have to take a step back and really consider the opportunities you have here, and take advantage of them.”

While Khan and other founders of Paani grew up in Pakistani households, the water crisis was never something they were acutely aware of. In fact, according to Khan, many Pakistanis did not realize the severity of the crisis until Paani was founded, and Prime Minister Imran Khan brought it to the public’s attention.

“Most of the time when you’re describing Pakistan, there’s a lot of issues over there, whether it be the terror problem, the problem with electricity, the problem with a lack of education, so the water issue was actually the biggest issue there, but nobody really talked about it that much,” Khan said.

Khan said his passion for helping people comes from experiencing the injury of a parent as a child. He felt that he could best achieve his goals through business.

“When I was 13, my dad, he had a stroke and he lost his job, and he lost the businesses that he was working on,” Khan said. “At that point, I really wanted to find an opportunity where I could help people, because I saw what business could do from the visions that I had for it and my father had for it, and I saw what medicine could do in the sense that it was helping people like my dad … I realized the impact I could have, and decided I wanted to do that through business or medicine. I ultimately decided on business, because I felt like you could do more with it, and it was more suited for my skill set.”

After graduation, Khan hopes to work in an industry that does “meaningful work,” though he acknowledges many have said it’s difficult to do without working in a big firm first.

“A lot of people tell me that’s something you can’t do in the short term — in the short term, you should try to find something, do it for a decade, then use those experiences to do something you’re more passionate about,” Khan said. “I’m trying to see if I can get all that in early on. I feel like time is the only luxury we have, and is something we should use effectively.”

Khan grew up in Jackson, an area without many Pakistanis. Growing up, he said he never felt “separated” because of his Pakistani identity. However, when he arrived at the University and met others who grew up with larger Pakistani communities, he felt like he had missed out.

While Khan knew of many Pakistanis on campus, he did not feel there was a community presence. Paani, he said, attempts to fill that void.

“When I got to Michigan, one of my goals was to really reconnect with people that are Pakistani on campus, and there wasn’t that much of a community presence over there,” Khan said. “There was a lot of Pakistani students, but I didn’t feel that community. When we were talking about starting Paani, we felt like there was a void left because of the lack of that Pakistani community that we could take advantage of, even though we’re not a cultural organization. One of the drivers of building Paani was to create that Pakistani community that myself and so many others wanted, even though it wasn’t a direct goal of the organization.”

According to Khan, the sense of community Paani offers is one of the things that makes it most successful.

“I think it’s been one of the biggest drivers of Paani’s success, because when people come to an event, they feel that sense of community and they see that community among our board, and they see that we’re willing to talk to anybody,” Khan said.

Aside from Paani, Khan is in the process of establishing two other nonprofits. One, IceVax, seeks to design a box that will keep vaccines cool when being transported in Pakistan, Yemen and Uganda, in order to increase immunization rates. This project was awarded $10,000 in funding from the Barger Leadership Institute. 

His other nonprofit, Project United, stems from his experience as a first-generation college student. The nonprofit offers to match high school students with resources they need to succeed academically through an application process.

Khan said he wants to make sure money does not serve as a barrier to academic success.

“That really inspired Project United. Me figuring everything out was through Google and College Confidential, which at times is pretty misleading,” Khan said. “It really makes you aware, especially when you’re at Michigan, that knowledge, mentorship and finance is a big advantage. Growing up, I didn’t really think it was a big deal until I got to the application process and I realized how a lot of people knew what they were doing. There’s all these different microluxuries that serve as barriers that you might not be aware of.”

Khan said much of his success is thanks to the people who have helped him succeed.

“I think on a service level, what has really helped me succeed are the great people that have been around me,” Khan said. “From when I was a freshman on Syrian Orphanage Sponsorship Association with Abdulmalik Saleem, Taim Al-Jarrah, Tala Al-Saghir, Heba Al-Saghir, Alina Fatima, Yusuf Ahmed, to Paani with Nauman Khan, Areesha Shahab, Omar Ilyas, Shanmin Sultana, Umaima Abbasi, Faraz Longi, Arhum Arshad, to Icebox with Huzaifa Piperdi and Essam Al-Snayyan. I feel like the people around me constantly put me in a position to succeed, so I’m just thankful for those people."