May 29, 2014. When the exchange program between the Watauga County Schools and schools in Taxila, Pakistan began in the fall of 2012, the novelty of the effort was enough to generate plenty of excitement and momentum. Now, after two years of experience with the program, efforts are underway to further increase its educational and cultural benefits.
A recent meeting at Hardin Park School brought together WCS teachers and principals who have been part of the exchange program with Jesse Lutabingwa, associate vice chancellor for international education and development at Appalachian State University, and Dr. Arshad Bashir, Appalachian State University project manager for US-Pakistan educational and cultural exchange, to review progress and identify ways to make the program even more valuable in the third round next fall.
The meeting focused on ways to provider greater depth to the experience and more tangible takeaways to participants. For example, more effort will be devoted to pairing up American and Pakistani educators who teach the same subjects and grade levels, and thepaired teachers may share more teaching duties during their stay. Plans will be developed for meeting specific academic goals and completing specific educational projects during the exchange. In addition, orientation for host families will be strengthened to smooth the initial phase of adaptation by both guests and hosts.
Hardin Park School, Green Valley School, and Watauga High School are the three local schools participating in the program. The three Pakistani schools taking part are Heavy Industries Taxila Education City’s (HITEC) Cambridge School, the HITEC Junior High School for Boys, and the HITEC College for Girls.
In this year’s program, each participating Watauga County school hosted five students and 3-4 teachers from Pakistan for about three weeks. Following their stay here, the Pakistani delegation visited Washington D.C. for five days in November, accompanied by four students and two adults from each of the three local schools.
As the third component of the exchange, 15 local teachers, five each from the high school, Green Valley, and Hardin Park, spent a week in Pakistan this spring. “The schedule was very busy, with a mixture of site-seeing and educational activities,” said Jesse Stollings, a high school social studies teacher who took part in the trip. “I think everyone who went would tell you it was one of the most amazing experiences they’ve ever had, and one for which we are very grateful.”
One of the changes for next year will be an increase in the number of participants in the exchange. This year’s program involved 15 students and six adults from Pakistan. Plans for next year anticipate the arrival of 20 Pakistani students and 10 educators. The number of local teachers who will visit Pakistan is also expected to rise, from 15 this year to 20 next year.
The exchange program is intended to foster increased understanding and mutual respect between Americans and Pakistanis on a personal level and to help build a foundation for improved relations at all levels. Participants’ comments have consistently revealed stories of how negative stereotypes were shattered, common ground was discovered, and new friendships were formed in the wake of the experience.
A key part of the program is the hosting of Pakistani visitors by local families, an experience that had a major impact on both guests and hosts. Pakistanis spoke of being treated as a member of the family and of feeling at home here, and of their gratitude for the warm welcome they received. The visitors also reported that their firsthand experience of Americans in school, at home, and in the larger community effectively dispelled negative stereotypes common in Pakistan.
“This program has proven to be truly worthwhile,” said Hardin Park Principal Mary Smalling, who is also the Watauga County Schools Principal of the Year for 2014-15. “It has changed perceptions on both sides and deepened understanding for everyone involved. It’s more than met the expectations any of us had for what we could achieve in such a limited time. We look forward to making it even stronger and more valuable as we continue and deepen the relationships we have formed.”
The exchange program is funded through a grant to Appalachian State University from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.