On December 16, 2014, I sat in my office in Islamabad, Pakistan and watched in horror as the death toll from an assault on a school in Peshawar rose higher and higher. Members of the Pakistani Taliban had attacked the Army Public School and killed over 140 people – 132 of them children. This horrific event, however, inspired us at Embassy Islamabad to counter with something positive for that school’s survivors.
The result was the U.S.–Pakistan Global Leadership and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Program. For two weeks in late July to early August, twelve Pakistani and four American 11th graders participated in a program that demonstrated our solidarity with the people of Pakistan, encouraged leadership development, and brought real cultural understanding to some of Pakistan’s and our brightest future leaders.
Through this program, the Pakistani and American students visited Washington, D.C., New York City, West Point, Albany, and Cooperstown, and bonded with each other through collaborative science projects focused on nanotechnology, cricket matches, basketball games, and a real American birthday celebration for one of the American students. They also got VIP treatment in meeting with the New York Police Department, the Department of Defense, and even with Secretary of State John Kerry.
I could say so much more about this terrific exchange, but I’d rather let Jonathan Foldi, one of the outstanding American students, tell you about the experience in his own words. Here’s his story:
“When I was selected to join the U.S.-Pakistan Global Leadership and STEM program, I was skeptical. What would I be able to get out of the program? What would I be able to offer? I hoped that I would be able to offer the Pakistani boys a better perspective on America – one that would differ from what they had seen in movies. But I didn’t imagine much more than that.
When I first met the other students, I was overwhelmed by the new faces and unfamiliar accents. After some introductions, our first interaction took form in a game of “keep away” with a soccer ball. I slowly began to learn names and some of other boys’ personalities. Our games soon morphed into a makeshift game of cricket with a baseball bat and tennis balls doubling for “real” cricket gear — that would come later.
It was during these first few hours that I began to develop friendships with some of the students. My roommate was the first of many new friends; within minutes of our first conversation we were already discussing how we would work together to build a plane that could double as a submersible after we became CEOs of our own companies. It was in that moment that I realized how similar Pakistani and U.S. students really are. We share the same career aspirations and enthusiasm for learning.
The 16 of us bonded during the events we attended at State University of New York Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), and through sports we participated in throughout our program. During the CNSE program, we were exposed not just to tiny intricacies at the nanoscale, but we were also able to make sumo wrestling robots! Group projects at CNSE also gave us the opportunity to create a marketable product and business plan, but more importantly, the projects gave us the experience of working as a global team. They allowed us to create something greater than we could have individually or with a small group composed only of our American peers.
From these experiences, I can now say that I have 12 new Pakistani brothers who live on the other side of the planet and my perceptions about the world broadened beyond anything I could ever learn in a classroom. I even learned new things about America, after visiting the Pentagon, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and the Commandant while touring West Point. But it is the things I learned about culture are what will stay with me the longest from my time with these Pakistani brothers. I learned more than I thought I would about the history, geography, politics, music, and food of Pakistan. I have a deeper understanding of the long-standing relationship between our two countries.
Thanks to this program I now have a new worldview. I no longer think about what happens internationally as distant events that don’t affect me, but rather world events are stories of individuals, people with whom I now know I can become friends in a matter of weeks – even if we are separated by thousands of miles.
During this experience I also learned some new things about myself. Despite my early skepticism, I would now classify this as one of my most life-changing experiences. It was also life-affirming, particularly given the circumstances that brought these boys to the United States –- the terror attack on their school.
Most importantly I learned that it is through people of my generation– the future leaders of these two nations — our ties will be strengthened and enhanced. We were the start of something truly great!
About the Authors: Jonathan Foldi is a rising 11th Grader in Rockville, MD. Angela Aggeler is the Director of the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Originally Published at U.S. Department of State Official Blog