By Olivia Handley
Nov. 11, 2014. This October marked the third installment in an annual exchange program between Watauga County Public Schools and schools in Taxila, Pakistan. For two weeks, families around the High Country hosted a group of Pakistani students, teachers and administrators from Heavy Industries Taxila Education City (HITEC), a school right outside of Islamabad, Pakistan.
The project was directed by Arshad Bashir, the assistant director of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, and Dr. Jesse Lutabingwa, the associate vice chancellor for international education and development at Appalachian State University.
The project is the brainchild of Bashir, who first traveled to the United States with a program that would later extend the same opportunity to others.
“I came here with a very negative impression of the United States, which is framed through the media; that”s the only source for us to get information,” said Bashir.
“I realized the same happened here. The people don”t have access to neutral media. It is not the fault of the people, it is the fault of the media which is building such an impression among the people.”
Upon seeing his own views about the United States change, Bashir wanted to create a program that would extend the same opportunity to others. The goals of the project are to improve education and bring the two nations and cultures together to benefit both the U.S. and Pakistan.
“If I change myself, maybe other people might change,” said Bashir.
After a year of successful online collaborations between Watauga County Schools and HITEC in 2011, Bashir decided to write a grant asking for funding to expand the exchange. He hoped that allowing teachers and students to travel between the two schools would create better connections and understanding between the two cultures. The grant is funded by the Public Affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan.
The first group of Pakistanis traveled to the U.S. in 2012, and over the past three years the program has been met with huge success. By 2014, the reluctance of families to host the students and teachers had disappeared. Now, the program has an excess of families requesting to host the travelers.
The impact of these trips has been tremendous for both sides of the exchange.
This year, HITEC brought a specialized group of teachers to focus on starting a special education program at HITEC, something that is virtually nonexistent in Pakistan. Those teachers have been collaborating with instructors from Watauga to learn how to pinpoint children who would benefit from a special education program, and provide them with the proper resources to help these students. The program is still in its infancy but could provide a huge leap forward for Pakistan”s education system.
The most impressive impact of these trips has been the connections that have been formed over such a short period of time between two different cultures. From the tearful goodbyes when the Pakistani group departed from their new American friends at the airport, you would never know that the friends had only known each other for a few weeks.
Many of the stereotypes and misconceptions common among both cultures disintegrated as the people got to know each other better. Although there are glaring differences between the two groups, the similarities quickly outshone the differences.
“To be honest, I didn”t think Americans and Pakistanis could become friends,” said Abdullah Durrani, one of the students visiting the U.S.
“It was the last thing I was expecting.”
Photos courtesy of Olivia Handley