Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has long been called a marriage of inconvenience, mainly because of the enormous political overhang the ties have been under over the decades. For many young Pakistanis, the US remains a shining citadel of knowledge, progress and education. But can an improved educational cooperation and an equality-based student exchange program become a source of better ties between Pakistan and the US? Aisha Saeed gives her take.

Sabika Sheikh, a Pakistani girl from Karachi, was one of the many students who were attending a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, when a rogue shooter ended her and nine other students’ lives in an incident that left Americans dum founded.But not still know why Sabika, a Pakistani, was in the US in the first place. Well, she was a on a State Department-sponsored youth exchange and study program.Just like Sabkia did, a number of students from Pakistan avail various scholarship programs and self-financed educational opportunities in the US at various levels of education. Although a number of Pakistani students now look to other destinations to pursue their higher education dreams, the US still remains a priority for many- at least for those who can manage to secure a scholarship.3

 

 

Although a number of Pakistani students now look to other destinations to pursue higher education, the US still remains a priority for many

 

 

Last year, the Trump administration announced that it would increase educational opportunities for students in Pakistan. The announcement came following a thaw in US-Pak relations after President Donald Trump warmed up to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Under the US civilian assistance to Pakistan, people-to-people exchange through education aims at aiding Pakistan become a self-sufficient country. For a developing country like Pakistan, education means everything. But for Pakistan and US as a whole, it could well be that base for a renewed, strengthen relationship.

 

Education As a Band-Aid:

An article published by Daniel F Runde in The Hill titled “Without Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US need a new basis for relationship”, suggests that “education is also key to reframing the relationship. Student exchange programs are beneficial in improving relations between countries. In 2016, the last year for which we could find numbers, there was an 8.5 percent increase in the number of Pakistani students studying in the United States — which is still just 11,000 Pakistani students. That is half of the 22,000 Pakistani students studying in China.”

Given the popularity of the master’s and doctoral Fulbright scholarship program among Pakistani students, it is rather surprising that not many attempt to be part of the USEFP’s undergrad exchange program, the Global UGRAD

Ever since China imitated the CPEC project with Pakistan, it has begun offering academic scholarship opportunities to students in subjects other than medical and engineering sciences. This has certainly lowered the number of Pakistani students aiming for a place in US universities. Still, according to various figures, an estimated 7,900 Pakistani students are enrolled in various universities across the US. That is an encouraging number, given the oft occurring political uneasiness and strict visa regime maintained by the US.

The USEFP

To assist the educational aspirations of Pakistani students, many organizations in public and private sphere are operating to strengthen educational cooperation between Pakistan and the US. The most notable of these organizations is the United States Education Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP), which facilitates in semester exchange programs and scholarships for graduate and doctoral degrees. Given the popularity of the master’s and doctoral Fulbright scholarship program among Pakistani students, it is rather surprising that not many Pakistani students attempt to be part of the USEFP’s undergrad exchange scholarship program, dubbed the Global UGRAD. It is not a complete scholarship program for undergrad studies in the US, but a semester exchange program that aims at offering a taste of international academic setting and education students enrolled in various universities in Pakistan

Given the popularity of the master’s and doctoral Fulbright scholarship program among Pakistani students, it is rather surprising that not many attempt to be part of the USEFP’s undergrad exchange program, the Global UGRAD 

As claimed by the organization, “USEFP’s mission for over 70 years of its existence in Pakistan has been to build mutual understanding between the people of Pakistan and the people of the United States through educational exchange. Ours is a bi-national commission guided by a board composed of both Americans and Pakistanis. The Fulbright and other merit-based exchange programs build people-to-people ties as well as contributing to the economic and social development of Pakistan. The exchange programs sponsored by the US Department of State provide Pakistanis opportunities to represent their country in the United States and enable Americans to learn more about this country.”

This year, 98 Pakistani students managed to secure USEFP’s Global Undergraduate Semester Exchange opportunity. Students who are currently enrolled in Pakistani universities in an undergraduate degree are sent on a semester (6 months) exchange in an institution in the US. The students not only gain exposure to the US’ academic culture, study subjects related to their degree, but also develop an important cultural link between the two countries. The exchange program covers the living and tuition fee of the students and places them with host families. Hence, the applicants must have more than just good grades. The selection criteria set a high bar that only a few are able to attain. 

In a discussion with Academia Magazine, USEFP Executive Director Rita Akhtar told us a bit more about how students are shortlisted for the exchange. “Other than the mentioned criteria, we also look for leadership qualities in an applicant along with how they plan to use their experiences from their exchange journey for the development of their local communities. We hope they will return to be active members of the Pakistan US Alumni Network (PUAN) which supports community service efforts of alumni,” Rita explained.  She said the USEFP encouraged everyone interested in higher education to “consider the United States as a destination, whether on a USEFP-managed scholarship program such as Fulbright and Global UGRAD or by applying directly with the assistance of our EducationUSA centers. Pakistani students who study in the United States are well prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the global economy. Studying abroad also strengthens ties and fosters friendship among students from different countries”.

A One Way Street?

The number of applicants to the UGRAD and Fulbright programs is increasing by the year, but what has been seen missing over the years from the equation is the “mutual” part. While the number of Pakistani students heading to the US to understand how things are in the “land of opportunities” has been on the up, there is hardly a sizeable number of US high school, undergrad or grad students currently in institutions of Pakistan benefiting from the opportunity.

While the number of Pakistani students heading to US for studies on various cultural exchanges has gone up, there is hardly a sizeable number of US high school, undergrad or grad students currently in institutions of Pakistan

Pakistan has long battled to present itself as a safe destination to visit and reside, but despite finally having becoming one after years of battling terror, foreigners remain reluctant to admit that the country has become as safe as it should be.The USEFP says that more than 900 American scholars have been visiting Pakistan. But the exchange of American undergraduate students in Pakistani universities is non-existent. Especially when Pakistan has decent institutions like Lahore’s Forman Christian College University, IBA Karachi, Aga Khan University and Habib University that offer education at par with institutions in the US.

If the aim of the exchange program is to develop mutual understanding and to people-to people relations, it should not be a one way street. Young American students must also be encouraged to explore Pakistan and interact with its younger population who is enrolling in universities by the thousands each year, so that the stereotype image of Pakistanis in the mind of most Americans is put to a test. Despite the tragedy that struck that ill-fated high school in Texas in which Sabika fell and the recurrent shooting incidents in schools across the US, Pakistanis do not see the US in its entirety as a troubled society or state.Influential organizations like USEFP must step up efforts to bring more and more US students for exchange programs in Pakistani institutes to truly make Americans understand that the country is way more than what the media tells you to believe. It is only then that we can truly attain equilibrium in the equation that is people-to-people relationship.

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