McNeese State University is
hosting two Pakistani students this spring semester as part of the U.S.
Department of State’s Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan.
McNeese is the only university in
Louisiana selected to host students through the program, according to McNeese’s
Director of International Programs Preble Giltz Girard.
"This is a tremendous honor
for McNeese and is a testament to the quality of our programs, our student
support services and our tremendously warm and welcoming community that values
diversity,” Girard says.
"While these students will only be with us for one semester, they
have already made an indelible impression on campus and will be great
ambassadors for McNeese and all of Southwest Louisiana when they return home in
May,” she adds.
Created by the department’s
Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in 2010, the program is aimed at
promoting better understanding of the United States abroad. Engineering majors Hira Mahmood, of Rawalpindi,
and Muhammad Aleem, of Islamabad, have not only been tasked with continuing
their studies, but also learning more about the cultures and values of the U.S.
and Louisiana to share with their communities when they return.
ambassadors, we get the chance to act as a bridge between the two countries and
also show the beauty of Pakistani culture to Americans,” Mahmood says.
Competition for a space in the
program is fierce: eligible students must be Pakistani citizens, 25 years or
younger, currently enrolled in a college or university, proficient in English
and display high academic achievement and strong leadership qualities. Of the
30,000 students that apply, only about 200 are selected to participate.
Based on a lengthy interview
process and their paths of academic study, Mahmood and Aleem were assigned to
McNeese, though neither student was familiar with Louisiana before they
Louisiana was a state,” Aleem says, "But I didn’t know the state abbreviations.
So when I first got my letter, I saw ‘McNeese State University, LA.’ I thought
– I’m going to Los Angeles!”
Both students were quickly
embraced by the McNeese and Southwest Louisiana community and found that, in
many ways, there wasn’t as great a difference between the cultures as they were
"When we came to the United
States, we were told about U.S. culture and how it’s different from our own
culture,” Aleem says. "For example, in Pakistan, whenever we meet someone, even
a stranger, we always hug each other. The people in Washington, D.C., told us
Americans don’t hug – the most you can do is shake hands. They even gave us a
tutorial on how to shake hands. But when I came to Louisiana, the first thing people
did was hug me!”
Both say that their education at
McNeese has been very different than what they’re used to in Pakistan.
"Academically, McNeese has been brilliant,” Aleem
says. "Over here, professors are very practical and assign us hands-on projects
instead of exams. I really enjoy my classes, and because McNeese has a small
student body, you receive more personal time with your professors. They can
personally address your questions and help you explore your interests. For
example, an engineering professor changed our class syllabus when the class
expressed the need to learn more about certain software. His priority was to
make sure we had what we needed to succeed.”
Mahmood concurs. "The professors
are great. When I needed help, I was amazed – the class was over, but they stayed
to help break down concepts so they were easily understandable for me. They’re
so helpful and encouraging to students.”
While studying at McNeese, the
students have also had the chance to travel extensively throughout the U.S. to
get a broad idea of how American culture differs from place to place. The
students have traveled everywhere from Chicago to Disneyland and extensively
through Louisiana. They also had the chance to participate in a very Louisiana
tradition: Mardi Gras.
the semester nearly over, Aleem wants to eventually return to McNeese to pursue
a graduate degree, while Mahmood plans to help establish facilities in Pakistan
where women and girls can pursue their education. Both students say that they
are excited about returning home to fulfill their roles as cultural ambassadors
and spread what they’ve learned about the U.S., Southwest Louisiana, and
McNeese to their home country.