During the month of July, 20 Fulbright scholars from Pakistan are studying at the University of Vermont before returning to complete degrees in electrical engineering, journalism and bioinformatics. A bright, funny, sophisticated bunch, they were selected from a pool of more than 1000 applicants for this Institute for Student Leaders. It is one of seven such programs funded by the U.S. State Department and hosted by American universities. On a recent Friday the group takes time from a packed schedule to talk to a reporter — in perfect English — about their impressions of Vermont and their lives back home.
Though most of their experiences here have been positive, many of the students worry aloud that Americans don’t know enough about Pakistan. “Someone asked me if we have TV in Pakistan!” offers one. “Well, somebody asked me if I knew what a nun is!” declares another. “And someone asked if we’d heard of the Holocaust!” exclaims a third incredulously. For the record, they do watch TV, have email accounts and post pictures on Flickr.
Of course, these young Pakistanis are here to get a better view of American society, too. They “will have a more nuanced and appreciative understanding of the United States,” says Ned McMahon, the UVM program’s academic coordinator and an associate professor in Community Development and Applied Economics.
The theme for the UVM institute is “Exploring the Uniqueness of Vermont Within American Society,” and the Green Mountain-cool syllabus includes attending a Bread and Puppet Theater show, meeting with Gov. Douglas and Sen. Leahy, visiting an advertising agency and a local television station, watching a David Mamet movie, and hearing Vermont folksinger Anaïs Mitchell in concert.
Samir Anwar Butt, a 19-year-old computer-science major from Islamabad, thinks the institute is an excellent way to learn about the U.S. “It’s a practical approach,” he says. “There’s still lecture, but a bit less than in Pakistan.”
McMahon believes Vermont is a great place for the program because of its “unique political and social culture of tolerance and community engagement.” A former diplomat, he hopes the experience will really make a difference. “I expect that students will return with improved leadership and cross-cultural communication skills,” he surmises. “In a highly polarized environment such as Pakistan’s, which has deep fissures between different sectors of society, these skills are sorely needed.”
What lessons has the group learned about democracy? “Transparency and accessibility,” says Mustafa Haroon, 19. He notes they are also impressed by the volunteer work Vermonters do, such as for VISTA and VPIRG. McMahon says that’s another aspect of democracy to take home. “It is very possible that, as a result of this visit, a number of them will look towards careers or avocations based on community service or development,” he says.
Other impressions of Vermont so far? “Clean!” “Friendly!” “Not everyone supports Bush!” “I love the wood houses with the little porches! They’re like dollhouses!”
In addition to everyday life in the States, the students have also been studying religious pluralism, and appear to be deeply impressed by the tolerance they’ve observed here. Especially during a service at Burlington’s Unitarian Universalist Society, whose congregation includes Christians, Jews, agnostics and atheists.
“It is good to see religious leaders practicing acceptance,” Butt points out. “Too often extremists exploit religion to achieve their political goals.”
Asked if there is controversy in Pakistan over the Islamic veil for women, the female students react strongly: “No, absolutely not!” These young women, who are all fashionably dressed in jeans and aren’t veiled, see no problem for women who choose to wear the hijab, which covers the hair, the niqab, which covers the face, or even the burkha, which covers the entire body. They insist it’s a personal decision that should be left up to a woman and her family.
Not surprisingly, the students are disturbed by negative stereotypes about Muslims. On American television newscasts, the words “terrorist,” “Islamist” and “Muslim” too often appear in the same sentence, they’ve noticed. Jihad, they insist, is a spiritual struggle first and foremost.
“The name ‘Islam’ comes from the word for peace,” points out Sheema Ali, a 22-year-old from Islamabad. She emphasizes that the green stripe on Pakistan’s flag represents its Muslims, and the white stripe represents the country’s Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others.
Pakistanis overwhelmingly disapprove of President Bush, the students say. Many could understand the American invasion of Afghanistan, but all see Iraq as a horrible mistake. “And we worry when Bush says God tells him what to do,” says Haya Fatima Iqbal, 22, a journalism major. The remark elicits giggles from her friends.
Their own President Pervez Musharraf, an ally in the “War on Terror,” was immensely popular when he seized power in a coup, but will never be legitimate until he is elected, the students say. “Even though the U.S. says it’s for democracy, you have supported all four military coups that have taken place in Pakistan,” Butt points out. “Musharraf reflects poorly on the U.S. and vice-versa. The Americans have to stop their double standard for democracy — they’ve supported coups in Pakistan, in Venezuela, Iran and elsewhere.”
Even so, they admit that General Musharraf has done good things for Pakistan, such as granting more freedom of the press. “And he has accepted the new Supreme Court decision — this is very important for Pakistan’s democratic institutions,” Butt explains.
After studying here, the students hope to effect change on the local level back home. They’ll take back fond memories of Vermont, such as listening to music at Radio Bean; a $4 pair of jeans from J.C. Penney; a Lake Monsters baseball game; getting henna designs — 20 times more expensive than back home — at the farmers’ market. They’ll take some important ideas, too: about town meeting, tolerance, environmental consciousness. Vermont, the students say, feels like a community.