Naeem Iqbal is a first-generation college student and Muslim from Islamabad, Pakistan studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at The University of New Mexico for the spring semester.
The 7,600 miles between him and his family mark an important rite of passage for Iqbal and present a unique opportunity to inspire more cross-cultural understanding. Iqbal expected the distance to play a larger role in his experience at UNM, but has found many opportunities for sharing and celebration.
“People here want to learn about our culture and our religion,” said Iqbal, an international student sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan (Global UGRAD-Pakistan).
A fellow Global UGRAD-Pakistan student from Multan, Pakistan, Muhammad Amin, who is studying English at the UNM Center for English Language & American Culture (CELAC) explained, “At first we were hesitant to come because we heard the U.S. was not welcoming of Muslims. It’s one of the stereotypes in Pakistan. But being here - that hasn’t been true. Americans are very friendly and understanding.”
Aside from U.S. food being bland with fewer spices compared with the fuller flavored palate of Pakistan, Naeem and Amin are enjoying their experience in the U.S. and at UNM. Most often they receive basic questions about Pakistan – from the kinds of roads they have to the presence of shopping malls and other centers of entertainment.
“People here do not know much about Pakistan and assume we are underdeveloped,” said Iqbal.
Both speak highly of UNM’s buildings, the New Mexico landscape, and most of all – the people.
“It’s a great thing to be able to come here and say that we are friendly people like you. We are human and we are the same,” said Iqbal.
One notable aspect of their experience has been the many opportunities to participate in civic life through organizations such as Associated Students of UNM Community Experience, Rotaract Club, the UNM Global Education Office (GEO) International Service Corps., and activities and studies organized by the nearby Baptist Student Union.
“I find it remarkable and adventurous of Naeem to travel to the U.S. to study at our university because he was encouraged by many to not travel to the U.S.,” said Pablo Torres, director of international admissions and recruitment for UNM GEO. “Just as many people in the U.S. have misperceptions of Pakistan, there are many people in Pakistan who have misconceptions of the U.S. For this reason, it is important that we have the types of exchanges and interactions that Iqbal’s presence at UNM achieves.”
The Global UGRAD-Pakistan program is a highly competitive program comparable with the Fulbright program and is designed to build the leadership capacities of young students from underserved populations in Pakistan. Through training in critical skills building, studying in academic settings and volunteering in the Albuquerque community, students like Naeem and Mr. Amin have the opportunity to develop competences needed to implement long-term civic and economic changes in their communities. Foundational to this effort is building stability through increased cross-cultural understanding.
With the support of the UNM GEO Education Abroad team, their advisor Susi Knoblauch, and their peer mentor Frauke Dobers, Amin and Naeem are organizing an exciting event for the UNM and Albuquerque community where they will present the food and culture of Pakistan alongside other international students. Ouijdane Guiza, a Global UGRAD from Tunisia, and two exchange students, Frauke Dobers of Germany and Nicolai Senumstad from Norway. The event is sponsored by the UNM Residence Hall and will take place on Friday, March 4 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Hokona Ballroom. The event is free and open to all who are interested in attending.
“We will be calling our mothers so that we can cook,” said Amin. “My message here is simple – learn and share.”
For the remainder of their time on campus and in the U.S., Naeem and Amin intend to try hoverboards, experience as many cultures of the U.S. as possible, and improve their English-language skills. English is one of the official languages of Pakistan as it is predominantly used in work environments.