The U.S. – Pakistan Global Leadership and STEM Program is an exchange program that engages ten female Pakistani students in a variety of leadership building and STEM-focused educational activities. During their stay, students participated in an immersive nanotechnology curriculum at SUNY Polytechnic institute.
When I arrived at the 4H Center a little over a week ago, I was greeted by a room full of exuberant smiles. Ten Pakistani girls, having just touched down from their respective hometowns the night before, were clustered at the long tables pulled together in the meeting room. They literally sparkled, clothed in traditional shalwar kameez and mirror work bangles, clutching their first (of many) electric blue Gatorades. Immediately, I was struck by their openness; no less than five minutes into introductions, Abira, a second-year high school student from Lahore, approached me to say: “Haley, I want to know more about you.”
Over the course of the next week and a half, they would continue to surprise me with this sort of earnest curiosity. During their time in Washington, D.C., the girls met with a variety of federal officials between cultural tours (and many monument selfies). At the Pakistani Embassy, Mr. Rizwan Saeed Sheikh, Deputy Chief of Mission talked with them over trays of samosas and chicken biryani, sure to highlight his connection to the girls as a fellow Pakistani, a diplomat, and a father. In their meeting, the girls questioned him on the importance of continued education, Pakistan’s resilient history, and their own role in making sure their country continues to flourish.
Similarly, they were not shy in sharing their ambitions at the State Department with Cathy Russell, U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. They discussed with Russell their positions as educated women in a society where not all girls have access to the same type of academic opportunities. Russell, like Saeed, stressed the United States’ investment in opening up these opportunities, referencing the robust Pakistani-U.S. Fullbright exchange and university financial aid plans that make it easier for international students to matriculate.
A State Department specialist in the Pakistani region closed the meeting by sharing an anecdote about a female friend in Cairo who trained to be an astronaut without knowing if she would ever become one – but then was ready to go when it became a reality. “You need to prepare,” he told them, “for a future you can’t even imagine.” This no doubt rang true when the girls began their program at SUNY Poly Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, where they were asked to literally think of the unimaginable. The Pakistani students, partnered with Eureka! Girls, participants in a summer Girls Inc. subsidiary program, spent the week coming up with “nanoeconomics” invention projects. In the afternoon after classroom time, the girls were inspired again and again by a mix of lectures and workshops: they suited up to enter a clean room, debated medical cases, and even built and programmed Lego robots to battle.
The program at SUNY Poly culminates tonight in a poster presentation session for SUNY Poly parents, students, and staff, who hopefully are ready to be dazzled. And this weekend — New York City, where they’ll tour the 9/11 Memorial, meet with the NYPD, and engage with the city’s Pakistani diaspora community (plus, of course, time for more shopping)!