What Pakistani Sudents Learned During Summer at Amherst

Sixteen Pakistani college students, five men and 11 women, arrived at Amherst last summer to study American politics and culture. As their time on campus drew to a close, they gave a frank appraisal of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Muslim world, and prepared to bring lessons about the United States back to their homeland.

Entirely funded by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Summer Institute for Pakistani Student Leaders provided an “opportunity to really get to know the United States—the people and culture, as well as what they might read in a textbook or see in the media,” says Javier Corrales, an associate professor of political science and the academic director of the program.

Hiba Tohid, 21, of Karachi, a third-year medical student, expressed a poignant complaint held by many in the group. “Americans really don’t care about the rest of the world unless it affects them,” Tohid said. “And what happened on 9/11 was a consequence of Americans being unaware.” Tohid and others in the group were surprised to see a local demonstration in support of Lebanon. (The demonstration was by the “Women in Black,” a group that gathers every Friday in the town center to protest American policy in the Middle East.)

The academic program included lectures from Amherst professors Martha Umphrey (law, jurisprudence and social thought), Margaret Hunt (history and women’s and gender studies), Frank Westhoff (economics), Dan Barbezat
(economics), Pavel Machala (political science), Ilan Stavans (Spanish) and other faculty from the Five Colleges. The students met U.S. Representative John Olver, who is a Massachusetts Democrat, and local civic leaders. They attended films and religious services and took day trips to the beach and to New York City. The group also visited Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, D.C.

But what most struck Areej Tahir, 20, of Faisalabad, were the courteous relations between local drivers and pedestrians on Amherst streets, “even though I never saw anyone arrested,” he said. “In America,” he continued, “the ideal of federalism has some reality: your local and state governments have real power, and people really accept—and respect—the laws.” Salman Rizvi, 21, also of Karachi, came to believe that the ideal of religious freedom was better realized in the United States than in Pakistan, where, according to Rizvi, “people want everyone to be religious.”

The Institute for Training and Development, a non-profit organization in the town of Amherst, has sponsored similar tours since 1985. Over the summer, ITD also hosted a program in American studies for 30 international teachers, with Frank Couvares, the E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies, as the academic director. That program, Couvares says, centered “on the conflict between individual rights and the obligations of individuals who participate in political, economic, social, cultural and religious groups.” The secondary school teachers who participated in this program came from such countries as France, Norway, Estonia and Macedonia, as well as Russia, China, El Salvador, Egypt and Cameroon, among other places.

They studied John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” address, the Declaration of Independence and the political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass. They also read the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and heard lectures on jazz, civil rights and women’s rights. Funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, the program included a canoeing trip on the Connecticut River and visits to Boston, Salt Lake City, New York City and Washington, D.C. At the end of the institute, the teachers prepared and presented sample teaching units.

Last winter, Corrales brought a group of Bolivian students to Amherst for another ITD program. For Corrales, the cultural exchanges work both ways. Now that he’s gotten to know the students from Pakistan, he says, he’d like to visit the country himself.