Thursday, July 26, 2007
Kanza Agha, 22 (from left), works with Sultan Baber Mirza, 20; Ayesha Imran, 21; John Meany, director of forensics at Claremont McKenna College in California; David Paul, 20; and Sidra Saeed, 22, as they prepare Tuesday at the University of Vermont for a roundtable discussions that will air on cable television.
Pakistanis visit to build bridges
Published: Thursday, July 26, 2007
By Tim Johnson
Free Press Staff Writer
The overseas visitors were talking about how they keep up with world events when they're in their home country, and several mentioned Fox News.
Was Fox News their main news source in Pakistan? They smiled.
"We watch it for fun," said Mustafa Haroon, as others nodded. Some said they like CNN. Samir Anwar said he preferred the BBC.
"British media are more unbiased than American media," he said.
They were talking over lunch in the dining hall of Harris-Millis, a dorm at the University of Vermont. For these 17 Pakistani university students, spending a month at UVM courtesy of the U.S. State Department, lunch these days consists of pasta, nachos, French fries, brownies -- not exactly the spicy fare they're used to. No meat for most of them, either. Not that they're vegetarians, but halal meat -- slaughtered according to Muslim law -- isn't available. They eat a lot of cheese pizza. Eating pizza is nothing new -- Pizza Huts can be found in Pakistan -- but eating it every day is.
The students are no strangers to American culture, but this is their first visit to the United States. Part of what they find striking has to do not with American culture, but with Vermont.
They're surprised to find so few supporters of President Bush. They knew Vermont was a "blue state," having followed CNN's election coverage, but this blue?
For a little variety, one of their UVM coordinators is planning to take them on a field trip to New Hampshire next week. Among the stops: Mitt Romney's campaign headquarters.
They're surprised that government officials are so accessible. They spent 40 minutes with the governor. They interviewed Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss.
Some of that accessibility is inherent to Vermont, or Burlington, where it's not unusual for pedestrians on Church Street to cross paths with the mayor or a U.S. senator. It's also true that doors have been opened for these visitors as guests of the U.S. government. Selected students from Pakistan and about 10 other countries, including China, Nigeria and Ecuador, are staying at universities around the country and will convene in Washington, D.C., for a few days at the end to compare notes and make presentations. Another Pakistani delegation is in Carbondale, Ill., at Southern Illinois University.
The State Department's stated rationale is to build bridges to other countries by exposing future leaders to American culture. The 36 Pakistani students spending a month in Vermont and Illinois are Fulbright scholars who were selected from about 1,200 applicants. Not surprisingly, the members of the UVM delegation come across as articulate, self-assured and with a kind of worldly sophistication.
"The idea is to increase mutual understanding between Pakistan and the U.S.," said Jennifer Phillips, program officer with the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, who visited Burlington last week to check on the program. "From a foreign policy perspective, we think it will improve relations and break down barriers and misconceptions. I really think they are having a life-changing experience."
Life-changing or not, some of their experience will be unforgettable -- beginning with their arrival at U.S. airports. Anwar flew in to Newark, where immigration officials detained him for five hours without explanation, without food and without even bothering to interview him, he said. He missed his connecting flight and spent his first night in the United States sleeping in the airport.
Others arrived at O'Hare, in Chicago. The male students were detained for four hours by immigration officials. Haya Fatima, one of the female students, recalled overhearing one official calling out to another: "Hey, should the Pakistani females be included?" The answer was no, and the women weren't detained, but they waited nevertheless for the men to be released. They all missed their connecting flight to Burlington.
They tell these stories with some amusement and without apparent bitterness. Once they got through immigration, they say, virtually everyone has been friendly and welcoming.
They have maintained a full schedule at UVM, with seminars on history and culture, religious diversity and politics, interspersed with field trips (including a visit to Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover) and sessions with various government officials. In keeping with one of UVM's favorite themes, they attended daily classes for a week on facets of sustainability.
For poor people in Pakistan, Hira Sarfraz acknowledged, the notion of sustainability is largely irrelevant -- after all, people struggling to survive care less about the environment. For these students, however, the idea makes some sense: relying on local resources and thinking ahead about the relationship between community and environment, as Haroon put it.
This week, their regimen has included morning workshops on public speaking led by two experts on forensics, UVM's Alfred "Tuna" Snider and John Meany, of Claremont McKenna College in California. On Tuesday morning, they each delivered a four-minute speech on topics that ranged from cultural diversity to U.S.-Pakistani relations. They spoke fluently, with humor. They've used English throughout their school careers (it's a common medium of instruction in Pakistan), along with Urdu, the other language they share. At home with their families, they're more likely to speak a regional language.
Their forensics mentors offered some tips on how to improve their performances -- in advance of their "live on tape" appearance on "Flashpoint," a weekly TV show on Channel 15; and their upcoming presentations in Washington.
Meany was impressed. Speakers whose first language isn't English typically lack polish or confidence, he said -- but not these students.
"This is my fifth international exchange this year," he said. "The real difference with this group is how consistently excellent they are with their English language skills. They're persuasive, sophisticated, and they're so confident in expressing themselves on these issues."
"They're fantastic," he said.
Contact Tim Johnson at 660-1808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.