September issue 2004

By | People | Profile | Published 20 years ago

Applying to colleges in the west can be a daunting task. Students have to fill out separate applications, complete with innovative essays and personal statements, while ensuring their teachers send out good recommendations to the admissions board. Competition for places is intense, and with most universities now looking for all-rounders, school students need to supplement decent exam scores with internships, extra-curricular activities and community service. And set aside substantial finances to pay for it all.

Sounds overwhelming? Getting to college can be. Newsline talks to students, who have already been there, done that — and have their university T-shirt to prove it! Why did they decide to study abroad, given the xenophobia prevalent in the post 9/11 western world? What did it take to make it there? And finally, given the time and finances a university education absorbs, is returning to Pakistan a credible option?

Flying hundreds and thousands of miles, landing in a strange country and living as an ‘alien’ in a foreign land for four years is not easy. Post-9/11, it has become even more difficult, especially for students from Muslim countries.

Obtaining a visa is, more often than not, an ordeal in itself. Then there is the harassment foreigners suffer at immigration desks upon arrival, where almost every person with brown skin is considered a “suspect,” and stopped for “random” security checks. Paradoxically perhaps, more Pakistani students are studying abroad now than ever before.

This outflow of aspiring university students can partly be explained due to the lack of credible educational options in Pakistan. While medical, business and art schools abound, quality liberal arts colleges are practically non-existent. Many students also fear that Pakistani universities are not always recognised abroad. “My choosing to go abroad was based on a simple rationale: did I want a credible degree in four years or a piece of paper that I would have to verify and explain wherever I went in the world,” explains Sumaira Dharani, a first-year commerce major at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Political and social instability in Pakistan also discourages many students from seeking educational qualifications in their own country. “It’s hard to speak your mind as a professor in Pakistan. You get more opposing viewpoints abroad,” says Ragni Kidwai, a sophomore at Hampshire College, Massachusetts. “A foreign degree also counts for more when you are applying for jobs,” says Babar Asif, a graduate from the University of Arkansas, who did his Masters in marketing and is currently working in the US.

Universities abroad have greater resources at their disposal and are able to assist students in procuring internships and and even jobs after graduation. They also invite guest lecturers, have theatrical performances and provide better opportunities for students to explore their creative energies.

The process of applying from Pakistan, however, is fraught with complications and involves thousands of decisions. The most pressing of these is the issue of financial aid. Many American universities do not offer grants on a need-blind basis. Tuition plus room-and-board at top universities in the US can cost up to 40,000 dollars a year — an expensive undertaking for most. For many students, the choice of college is based on which one offers the best financial aid package. Most Pakistani students rely on scholarships that pay for tuition. Nazia Mansoor, who wanted to study in the US, says she didn’t gain admission in most of her top choice colleges because she applied for substantial aid. “People who didn’t ask for that much aid got in, even though my grades were better,” she recalls. (Mansoor currently studies at Sussex University in the UK). Some students like Abbas Reza, a senior studying computer and information sciences at Minnesota State University, engage in part-time jobs to fund their education. “The odd jobs are an experience that all expats should seek. It really puts things in perspective and you come to appreciate the value of the dollar.”

In contrast to the US, Canadian universities do not provide international students with much financial aid, and whatever is available is very limited. But whereas small private colleges in the US tend to grant more aid, they are not need-blind, with merit-based scholarships remaining highly competitive.

Deciding which university to apply to can be quite difficult for the average Pakistani high school student. While students abroad have the advantage of professional counselling, coupled with visits to potential college campuses where they can meet with enrolled students and sit through college level classes, these options are not readily available to their Pakistani counterparts. Advice here is usually limited to the more well-known, first-tier schools. Many students, who are unable to pay the hefty fees this entails, remain unaware of opportunities for better financial aid packages that lesser-known colleges provide.

Though students receive some form of college counselling here, most students agree that effective guidance is hard to come by. Saba Baxamoosa, who studied at Karachi Grammar School, found herself to be simply a “name on a list,” and found her guidance counsellor to be completely unhelpful. Only those lucky enough to have family and friends living abroad can be helped effectively with their college search.

A few students complain that their high schools did not prepare them sufficiently for college. “My school did not provide me with a good base as far as academics are concerned,” says Dharani. The difficulty in adapting to a university curriculum in the US often stems from the fact that the British style of learning, which most Pakistani schools are based on, is completely different from that of the US. Says Kidwai, “At Pakistani high schools, we don’t write analytical papers, nor are we taught to write substantive essays. High school only taught me how to write a half-decent answer in 20 minutes.”

Relationships, both social and with professors, are also different abroad. Professors no longer have to be merely teachers but can be friends as well. “The onus is always on the student to establish a rapport. My professors always remember me by first name and I consider some more as friends than as professors. This is because I took the initiative to introduce myself to them. I know of countless students who go through their classes being just another face,” says Reza. College requires students to take independent initiatives. Those who don’t, will inevitably be left out.

Aside from managing academics, adapting to western culture is no easy task. University students are required to be mature, independent and responsible, something high schoolers are not. Family and friends are far away and students can feel isolated and left to fend for themselves. “If you are not mature, you can get blown away with the tremendous responsibility that comes from doing it alone,” says Reza. With no one to watch over, it’s very easy to get distracted and involve oneself in things like alcohol or drugs — something common to westerners.

Says Asif, “The minute I stepped onto the American flight that was to take me to the US, I was bombarded with their culture. I felt like I was being attacked from all sides and that feeling is still there, even after three years of being in the US. However, I am able to cope with it better now. I have seen several expats fall prey to the lure of this culture and I have seen them realise their follies. It’s the small things that can add to one’s unhappiness in a foreign country: the food, the cold, unconsciously breaking into Urdu.”

Dharani agrees, adding, “Surviving on your own, no matter how much the thought amuses and thrills people, isn’t all that it’s made out to be.

Despite all the adjustments involved, most students still believe a foreign education is worthwhile. “It’s definitely worth it,” says Baxamoosa. “It has made me stronger, much more open, tolerant and confident.”