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Pakistani student shares her first impression of U.S.

by MANDIE GOBER The Sentinel-Record on June 04, 2013 10:50 AM

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Pakistani exchange student Maryum Qasim’s first impression of Hot Springs was that It was quite different from what she expected it to be.

“I had a lot of stereotypes in mind before I came here, and what I experienced was a total contrast to what I had expected or what I had been told,” said Qasim.

“I realized that I had all these stereotypes because I was ignorant. I did not know the true picture. All I knew was all I had heard in media, in movies and all I was told by my elders. But when you actually experience (it), you see the real picture.”

She said she has learned much more about America and about this part of the country as she attended Jessieville High School and lived with her host family through the exchange scholarship program called Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study.

Out of thousands of applicants, Qasim was one of only 108 students awarded scholarships. The program, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, aims to promote a better understanding among youth from KL-YES countries about American society, people, institutions, values and culture, the Sentinel-Record reported.

The students do not receive academic credit for classes while in the United States. Qasim said she was nervous about missing a year of classes, but those concerns were soon allayed.

“When I came here, I was expecting the education to be way more difficult than it is in Pakistan.” she said. “I was surprised to find what they teach you in the 11th grade here, I had already been taught in the eighth grade.”

The value of an education for women is slowly being realized in Pakistan, but the road ahead remains long, said Qasim, adding that it was her father who played a vital role in ensuring education was a top priority for his children.

“In Pakistan, female education is not very common,” she said. “Coming to America is a really big deal over there. Everyone was telling my family, ‘Do not send her there. Who sends their daughters to America?’”

According to Qasim, Pakistanis follow a joint family system and sons are not encouraged to move away from the family home, but her father pursued his education and wanted the same for his children.

“All of the family encouraged my dad to move back home to the village, but he knew that his family wouldn’t have the similar opportunities as they do in the city, so he made a tough decision,” she said.

“He went to my grandfather and made the request. My dad always tried to provide us with the best educational opportunities. I am fortunate to have great parents. Everyone just realized he wouldn’t back down.”

During the past year, she not only had learning experiences, but helped educate others in the community about her country and culture with more than 80 presentations to clubs and organizations. She also had a meeting with Gov. Mike Beebe, who named her an Arkansas Ambassador of Good Will.

“People here did have a lot of stereotypes related to Muslims, Islam and Pakistan,” she said. “It feels really great when you actually play a role in educating others. It actually increased my knowledge and pride for my country.”

Qasim said she also took pride in breaking the typical stereotypes associated with her county and religion.

“What comes to mind about Pakistan? Terrorism is the most common answer; that is what people see from the media,” she said. “It kind of hurts when Islam and Muslims are compared to terrorism. Our religion is actually a religion of peace.”

She believes the stereotypes of others result from a lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides and wants to help change that.

“Before coming here, my perception was different; without seeing the world, you are quick to be judgmental,” said Qasim.

“We are all unaware of the reality, and the majority still are. Right now, I am the ambassador for Pakistan. When I go back, I want to be the ambassador for the United States. Now that I know what I am capable of, I really want to utilize this. Whatever I have learned here I want to go back and apply it there to bring a change.”

“I’m living here with a wonderful host family,” said Qasim. “They have been so lovely during my time here. Everyone has. They just greet you with a smile and are very open.

“The majority of Pakistanis, to be honest, think that Americans are very selfish. When I came here, I thought it would be totally different, but it’s not. I was amazed at the similarities that we have. That really made me think about the strength of diversity.”

She said she has also noted the lack of appreciation some of her peers seem to show. “I try to observe everything. Kids over here seem to take everything for granted. In the beginning, I used to wonder, ‘Could they not see what they are blessed with?’” she said.

“They have everything and they still complain about it. They take money for granted, school, college, I mean everything that they have,” she said.

Qasim plans on using the opportunities she has been given to full potential. “I see all these girls who would love to have education. I really want to use myself for the purpose of female education,” she said. “These girls do not know what they are capable of. I want them to realize what they can do, and if you face the struggle, nothing is impossible and I want to initiate these projects and make education common.

“Life is tough, but you are stronger than it. You can do anything and everything that you want to but you have to be determined and you will get to your goal.”

Qasim said this year has given her the drive and focus to continue her dream of serving her country and empowering those around her. She plans on studying medicine and serving as an ambassador.

“I have learned a lot of new things and my personality has been reformed. I don’t know how it’s going to be when I go back. My vision has been broadened because of this experience and I celebrate the differences.

“I am not saying that I am going to bring a revolution, but I can play my role and so will the other 107 students who have been given this chance.”

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